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What Were You Thinking? The Regrettable Amygdala Hijack

Have you been hijacked? Usually you can tell because you have one of those “What was I thinking?!” moments. You look back with regret over something you did or said that doesn’t reflect who you are or your values.

Maybe you insulted someone on social media. Or lashed out when someone cut you off in traffic. Or perhaps you suddenly realize you just spent an hour online foaming at the mouth over articles and posts about the latest outrageous thing the politician you don’t like did - when you were supposed to be working.

Tiny size - huge impact

Those are modern classic examples of the amygdala hijack, and we are falling victim to it with increasing frequency in this information age.

The amygdala is a small almond-sized structure at the base of the brain and is part of the limbic system. That is the seat of our emotional response center, especially negative responses like fear and anger. You have often heard me refer to the subconscious impulses that come from this area metaphorically as “the lizard” because the amygdala was once referred to as the reptilian brain.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman coined the term "amygdala hijacking" in his 1995 book, "Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ." He used the term to describe the emotional overreactions that result in us losing our cool or otherwise behaving like a clod without thinking about our response first.

The amygdala is good for us, or at least it was. It is responsible for our fight or flight response to physical threats so it can keep us safe in emergency situations. It releases adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones to get us to react quickly. That was great when we were in constant danger on the savanna. Now, not as much.

An overactive amygdala is often the result of PTSD, social anxiety disorder (SAD) or chronic stress. But even the most mentally healthy of us suffer from the occasional amygdala hijack and it can damage:

- our reputation

- our relationships

- our decision performance

Commercially triggered

The amygdala hijack is great for business. Not your business, but any enterprise or organization that can benefit from your fear, anger and outrage. They intentionally attempt to trigger those responses in you because it means more attention for them, which translates to more money and influence.

“News” organizations, social media, and political parties profit greatly when your amygdala is in high-activity mode. They design their systems to get it there and keep it there for as long as possible.


We are emotional beings and that’s a wonderful part of our human experience. But we are also thinking beings and we need to understand our emotions so we can use them effectively and avoid being controlled by them.

How? Through elevating our emotional intelligence or EQ. EQ is the level at which you can understand and manage your emotions. Here are some effective methods you can use to improve yours:

Catch it – I call this “confronting the lizard” and it means to recognize when you are feeling threatened, stressed, or emotionally triggered. By practicing being aware of your emotions, you can catch yourself before you react inappropriately.

Name it – When you feel that spike of anger, fear or other emotion, tell yourself what it is. “I am feeling so mad about this right now!” And while this approach may sound new-agey and fluffy, it works because it allows you to kick the situation up to your pre-frontal lobe where you can process it more rationally and respond to it in a way that reflects you, your values, and your goals.

Tame it - “Just calm down!” That’s annoying when other people say that to us, but it’s extremely useful to say to ourselves. Close your eyes (unless you are driving!), take a deep breath, and focus on something pleasant. It only takes about 6 seconds for the stress chemicals to dissipate. After that you are better prepared to respond appropriately or perhaps not at all, depending on the trigger.

No matter what you call it - mindfulness, coping strategies, metacognition – being able to recognize and counteract the amygdala hijack can help us all in our quest to become better versions of ourselves.

Think well and be well!

- Steve

Want to learn more about improving your thinking and decision making?


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