What Is Emotional Hijacking? How to Recognize It and Deal with It
Have you ever felt so overwhelmed by a situation that your normal reasoning processes are bypassed and you react in an irrational way? If so, you may have fallen victim to emotional hijacking.
Emotional hijacking is a state where our emotions interfere with the functioning of our brain to the extent where it can result in reactions such as aggression or irrational fear. In this post, we take a look at what emotional hijacking is, how to recognize it and what you can do to overcome it.
What is Emotional Hijacking?
Psychologist David Coleman introduced the concept of emotional hijacking in 1995. Coleman wrote the book ‘Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ’. Referring to “amygdala hijack”, Coleman recognised that this part of our brain is vitally important. This is because the amygdala serves as our emotional processor. However, in some circumstances, it can take over. In fact, it will dominate the parts of our brain that help us to be rational.
An amygdala hijack causes the cortex to shut down and makes it incredibly difficult to think clearly. Not only that but it inhibits our ability to make rational decisions. These events then result in the release of adrenaline. Extra adrenalin leads to an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and rapid breathing.
How the amygdala is involved in emotional hijacking
The amygdala is the part of our brain which regulates the flight or fight response. So it is, in fact, there to protect us from danger. It enables us to react quickly to a potential threat.
However, Coleman suggests that, in the modern world, the amygdala can serve to “hijack” our brain. This is when we are faced with a situation we find stressful or scary. The amygdala prepares our body to react as if the situation presented a real danger to our life. Although, in the majority of cases, there is no real danger.
How can I recognize an emotional hijack?
An emotional hijack can lead a person to react aggressively or result in a panic attack. It can have significant consequences on both our well-being and our relationships with other people. This is why it is important to recognize if emotional hijacking is affecting you.
Can you think of any situations where you have felt an immediate, overwhelming and somewhat unconscious response to something that, when reflecting on it afterwards, seemed irrational? If the answer is yes, then it is likely that you have experienced an emotional hijack.
How to deal with emotional hijacking
It is important to distinguish the difference between being ‘emotional’ and experiencing emotional hijacking. There is, of course, nothing wrong with feeling emotions deeply and reacting to them. However, it is when our emotional processor takes over that we lose all rational thinking. At this point, we need to think about taking steps to control and prevent this.
Being aware of emotional hijacking and how the amygdala works in the brain is the first step in taking control of emotional hijacks. Now we can recognize that some of our reactions to high-stress events are irrational and unnecessary. Studies into emotional hijacking have found that two key activities can assist with avoiding emotional hijacking.
Two activities that help stop an emotional hijack
Recognizing what triggers an emotional hijack is an important step in dealing with emotional hijacking. Once you are aware of your triggers you can take steps to diffuse your reaction. Spend some time thinking about what situations or people trigger your emotional hijacks, how you felt during this situation and what you felt like afterwards.
The next time you find yourself in one of your trigger situations, there are some steps you can take to deal with the emotional hijack before it escalates.
- Take a pause and a deep breath to calm you.
- Practice mindfulness.
- Name the emotions you are experiencing so that the thinking part of your brain is re-engaged.
If you can still feel the emotional hijack taking over, try and remove yourself from the situation so that you can regain control and a sense of calm.
- Emotional Intelligence
An emotionally intelligent person is someone who has a robust connection with the emotional part of their brain. They are well-tuned to their thoughts and feelings. A key strength of an emotionally intelligent person is being able to de-escalate their own emotions so that they don’t go into overload, thereby preventing emotional hijacking.
Fortunately, you can train your brain to become more emotionally intelligent through practices such as mindfulness. Practising mindfulness allows us to increase awareness of the present moment, being in tune to the environment around us and not letting unhelpful thoughts and emotions run around our head on repeat.
There will be some instances in life where emotional hijacking is unavoidable. Nevertheless, there are steps that you can take.
- Train your brain to distinguish between situations that require a fight or flight reaction and those that don’t.
- Have a better understanding of what triggers emotional hijacking.
- Increase your emotional intelligence through practices such as mindfulness.
These are key steps in managing the functioning of the amygdala in our brain and preventing the occurrence of emotional hijacking.