Amygdala hijacking is a funny sounding term that is actually far from funny!! It can make a normally sane and steady person into a roaring dinosaur faster than you can say dinosaur!!!
Magical wikipedia (I think it is magic because when I was a student I had to ride my bike to the library to look up the encyclopedia!!) describes the origins of "amygdala hijack" as a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Drawing on the work of Joseph E. LeDoux, Goleman uses the term to describe emotional responses from people which are immediate and overwhelming, and out of measure with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat.
In every situation we are observing with all of our senses. This information goes directly to the amygdala, situated deep in the emotional part of the brain and at the same time to the neocortex, the thinking part of the brain. When the information hits the amygdala, it checks other emotional brain records to assess the type of situation and if it assesses that it is a fight, flight or freeze situation, then the Amygdala triggers the HPA (hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal) axis and hijacks the rational brain. This emotional brain activity processes information milliseconds earlier than the rational thinking brain, so in case of a perceived threat, the amygdala acts before any possible direction from the thinking brain can be received.
Now if you are about to be mugged or you need to lift a car to save a baby or you have just come face to face with a grizzly bear - go ahead - your body is getting a clear signal to act - quickly.
But Dr John Gottman in his work studying couples observed that this same process was happening in discussions between partners. Suddenly, during a conversation something sets off the amygdala and your heart rate increases, your breathing may get more rapid and you may feel hot and bothered and flushed as adrenaline rushes into your body to activate the flight, freeze or fight response. He called this "flooding". And the bad news is that once one or both of you are flooded nothing you say to your partner is likely to resolve the situation. In fact if you have ever had one of those fights where you say mean stuff (or things you didn't mean!) you were most likely flooded. Whilst we are all likely to flood once in a while, continual flooding is very bad news for a relationship. Discussions become scary before they have even started and issues don't get resolved.
If you are reacting to something your partner has said or dirty dishwater in the sink your reaction comes from being triggered by a feeling that may actually have nothing to do with what is going on in the here and now but from something long ago - the brain finds it hard to tell time. The best thing you can do for you and your relationship is recognise that it is happening - STOP the conversation with your partner - and learn how to recover your composure - quickly.
My next blog will give you the tips and tools you need to calm yourself as quickly as possible. In the mean time my latest mini-course Talking with LOVE will give you the strategies and tools you need for safe and loving conversations. You can find it here...
Until next time...
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