The ability to think straight gets overridden. Surges of adrenaline build, each one magnifying the last as the mind ruminates and escalates the response.
Coherent thoughts become swamped. Anger builds on anger and the amygdala sends a primitive emotional signal that takes over normal self-control and reasonable, rational behaviour.
This is an emotional hijacking.
As put by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence, the hijacking involves two likely dynamics:
- Triggering of the amydala, the primitive reptile brain that sends a fast, reactive emotional signal, and
- A failure to activate the neocortex process, the part of the brain that rationalises and usually keeps emotional responses in balance.
It has taken me a quite some time to get around to reading this book, but I can’t recommend it enough. Goleman has a very distinct and unique approach of presenting scientific information in a conversational and engaging way.
The journey through the pages has made me both realise and reflect on times when I have had an emotional hijacking, lashing out with vicious and attacking words towards others; times when I have made nasty outbursts in the heat of an argument as my brain was hijacked and the rational neocortox was overwritten.
But does knowing the reason make it okay? Is it a get out?
I’d say definitely not.
Watch out for emotional hijacking triggers
We have all had those days when everything seems to go wrong. A number of minor challenges stacked up, one on top of the other. Some examples might include:
- Road rage in the morning followed by a disagreement at work about how best to execute a new project;
- A complaining customer who arrogantly refuses to listen, followed by a family member acting selfishly and causing distress to the family balance;
- A screaming child or a barking dog that digs deep into the emotional hardwiring of the brain, topped by an attacking response from your partner, directed to cause emotional pain.
The overall result: an out of character reaction that we look back on and think ‘wow, how did that happen? Why did I say that?’
All these situations in isolation can seem fairly insignificant and manageable, but when each trigger releases adrenalin and the next release occurs before the previous surge has dissipated, the limbic brain can take over rational response and reason and cause an emotional hijacking.
So how do we stop this from happening?
Emotional intelligence and mindfulness
Emotional intelligence, as put by Goleman, involves the ability to persist in the face of frustration, to control impulses and regulate one’s mood, and keep distress from swamping the ability to think.
Mindfulness involves observing the thoughts and emotions objectively. It is about being aware of the sensations and thoughts as they come and go, but not buying into or reacting to the impulse.
With practise we can learn to maintain our mental composure and mitigate the emotional hijacking.
So next time you feel like an emotional hijacking may be building up, do the following: stop, take a few deep breaths or a walk and just observe what is going on before you react.
Take the time to pause before you do something you’ll look back on and think ‘what the hell just happened? I don’t know why I responded like that.’
Can you remember a time when your brain was emotionally hijacked? What strategies have you used to deal with emotional hijacking?
References and further resources
- Goleman, D. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New Delhi: Bloomsbury; 1995.
- YouTube: Big Think. Daniel Goleman Introduces Emotional Intelligence; 2012. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7m9eNoB3NU. Accessed 13 January 2019.
- Big Think. Emotional intelligence at work: Why IQ isn’t everything. 2018. //bigthink.com/videos/emotional-intelligence-at-work-why-iq-isnt-everything.Accessed 13 January 2019.