EMOTIONAL HIJACKING EXPLAINED
“Anyone can become angry–that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way–that is not easy.”
Understanding Emotional Hijacking
I know that I’m not the only one who becomes embroiled in family issues, especially communications issues. Let me talk first about what I know about disputes of any kind, from a neurophysiological standpoint.
There is a recognized psychological phenomenon known as “emotional hijacking.” It has been written about by a number of distinguished and recognized psychological writers.
Emotional hijacking is the name given to a process that causes a disruption in the brain/body when a person is under stress; especially extreme stress. However, once embedded in the brain/body mechanism as a stressor, this phenomenon can become very easy to trigger.
Emotional Intelligence: What is it
According to Daniel Goleman, author, psychologist, science journalist, and au?thor of the seminal work “Emotional Intelligence” said in that book:
The Neurology of Emotional Hijacking
“The hippocampus and the amygdala were two key parts of the primitive “nose brain” that in evolution, gave rise to the cortex and then the neocortex. To this day these limbic structures do much or most of the brain’s learning and remember; the amygdala is the specialist for emotional matters. If the amygdala is severed from the rest of the brain the result is a striking inability to gauge the emotional significance of events; this condition is sometimes called “affective blindness.””
“Such emotional explosions are neural hijackings. At those moments, evidence suggests, a center in the limbic brain proclaims an emergency, recruiting the rest of the brain to its urgent agenda. The hijacking occurs in an instant, triggering this reaction crucial in moments before the neocortex, the thinking brain, has had a chance to glimpse fully what is happening, let alone to decide if it is a good idea. The hallmark of such a hijack is that once the moment passes, those so possessed have the send of not knowing what came over them.”
Essentially, what Dr. Goleman is saying is that in a fight, flight, freeze response to a stressor (physical or emotional), the cortex and neocortex (the thinking part of our brains) disengage and our bodies are then directed into fast by not reasoning action by the limbic system.
“The Emotional Brain” by Joseph Ledoux
Another wonderful author on this subject is Joseph Ledoux, who wrote, “The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life.”
The Logical/Smart Brain Disconnects
When this occurs, the thinking, logical brain is no longer operant to one degree or another. Our actions become automatic and instinctual, without the moderating influence of the thinking brain.
The muscles operate almost alone, blindly, instinctively and without much thought. Sight sharpens, respiration increases, muscles become stronger, impulse quickens, and perception of pain diminishes.”
The blood is directed away from the stomach, and inner vital organs, including sex organs, because you don’t need to eat or have sex when running away from a Bengal tiger or other large predator.
This action also saves the mammal from an extreme loss of blood, should any of the vital organs be injured. At this point, evolution has created a situation in which you can run fast, fight hard, or even freeze into immobility, in order to, hopefully, not be noticed by the predator.
It’s easy to see then, that under extreme stress, mental, emotional or physical, we might proclaim “the devil made me do it” or, “I dunno what happened,” or worse, “There I was with a weapon in my hand, blood all over me but I couldn’t for the life of me, remember what I had done.”
This emotional hijacking occurs in degrees, so it can be a fairly minor disconnection from the thinking brain, or it can be a major one, in which amnesia often follows the most horrible words or deeds.
The Lizard Brain Takes Over
The important thing that we need to realize, is that when happens, when we become crazed with rage or fear, lash out in ways we didn’t mean, verbally or physically. Afterwards, we can find ourselves scratching our heads as to why we do or say such an awful thing. Or, why someone else might have done so. It can be quite bewildering.
This is precisely what happens when people argue. Whether it is with a beloved spouse or some idiot on the freeway who is driving too fast and cutting you off, it’s the same phenomenon.
As I heard once in an AA meeting (without breaking anonymity), a big fellow, about maybe 40 to 50 years of age, tell us about how he would wake up in jail, having been in an alcoholic blackout, sobering up and facing some kind of assault charge.
One day this happened and he sobered to find that he was facing a murder charge. He begged the judge to sentence him to AA meetings, and the judge agreed. At that moment in time, he had 30 years of continuous sobriety. Whew. Close call. Has that ever happened to you?
A similar thing occurs when you’re in a bad accident, the time during which everything blurred, and you can’t quite remember the details.
It is this very phenomenon that makes us say and do the most awful things to each other, things often so unlike ourselves in calmer moments. Then later to wonder sadly “Why on earth did I say or do that? What was I thinking?”
The scary fact is, you weren’t ‘thinking.’ You were in a state of being “emotionally hijacked” or in “affective blindness.”
It is helpful to understand this emotional hijacking phenomenon both while you’re in the middle of such a state. It is not uncommon to come to calmer awareness later, not remembering what was said or what to say now.
When you have awareness of this phenomenon, you are better able to return to cognitive function, either by remembering that you are in a state in which you can’t think. You can stop, as soon as you are able, count to ten, and walk away for a cooling off period. You can even ask yourself a question, which immediately restores some degree of logical thinking.
Some good questions might be: “do I really want to do this or say this?” Might I be wrong (perish the thought)? Am I being rational and reasonable? Or even, do I think it might be a good idea to walk away and calm down?
If you plan ahead, you stand a better chance of NOT making thing worse. Wait until all parties involved have calmed down and are in better control of both emotional responses and logical thinking.
So when your mother or grandmother suggested that you count to 10 before saying or doing anything rash, they were onto something, even though they might not have known why.
So please, everyone, remember this when you feel out-of-control in any situation. Words can hurt and can’t always be taken back. As they say, the bell once rung, cannot be unrung. The heart, like a wheel, once bended, can’t always be mended. Far worse could be an action that you took when out-of-control.
It’s a human thing. We have all experienced it. Try to remember, if you’re all hot air and no ability to discern, go somewhere to cool off and come back later to find a solution.
Don’t Let Your Life be Emotionally Hijacked
That’s it for today. If you are having these kinds of emotional meltdowns and are saying or doing thing you later regret, count to 10. Better yet, walk away and count to 1,000 before you text, yell, email, or worse. If you still need help, please call or email me and I will be happy to do what I can.
Here’s to your success…