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Amygdala Hijacking Explained

What does amygdala hijacking mean? Why is it important in understanding our behaviour and our response to stress? Watch Dorothy explain more.
MUSIC PLAYING Psychologist Daniel Goleman highlighted the importance of the amygdala in his work with emotional intelligence. We have a pair of amygdala in our brain, which are two almond-shaped masses. They serve an important function as part of our survival mechanism to sense danger and to enable us to respond immediately and automatically. For example, if a fast car is approaching as you cross the road, you don’t have to think, “Jump away by moving my legs. A car is coming.” You do it automatically and unconsciously. When this happens, all your energy is used serving the amygdala, which causes your prefrontal cortex, your executive brain or thinking part of your brain to shut down.
Not being able to think straight in a stressful situation is actually a physiological effect. So, how do we respond to danger or threat? The brain releases cortisol and adrenaline, which increases our heart rate and blood pressure, which in turn prepares our major muscles to respond, whether that is to fight, flight, or freeze. The good news is that through self-awareness we can recognise this stress response and take steps to help reduce its impact. The psychologist Paul Gilbert uses the zones of tolerance to describe our reaction. In the centre of the diagram, or the safe zone, we feel comfortable and secure, and our ability to manage life and all that brings is well-served.
When moving to the inner circle, or challenge, we may feel motivated and driven, to learn, for example. But if we’re pushed into the outer circle, the threat zone, we can quickly become overwhelmed, causing our amygdala to be hijacked. If this happens for prolonged periods, then risk of developing chronic stress, anxiety, or depression increases. There’s also evidence that it can take hours after amygdala hijack to return to a normal physiological state. So that’s why, often, if we’re working in a crisis, our adrenaline, as you know, keeps us going. But it’s usually afterwards that we feel exhausted. This is even more reason for you to meet yourself with kindness after experiencing overwhelm or distress.
The first step is giving yourself permission to focus on self care and self-compassion. The good news is that there are techniques that can really help us to take control of our own emotions and to prevent the hijacking from occurring. The first one, which I’ve already mentioned briefly, is having that self-awareness, knowing what’s going on in your own body and noticing those feelings of worry, fear, anxiety, or whatever it may be. And it’s really important to be mindful without judgement. By being more self-aware and noticing when we’re sensing threats, we can find strategies and practise our own ways to move from overwhelm to challenge and to safety.

What does amygdala hijacking mean? Why is it important in understanding our behaviour?

In this video, you’ll learn the role your amygdala plays when under stress, and how developing self-awareness can help you to reduce the impact of the stress response.

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