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The Anatomy of Emotional Hijacking (#41)
Why We Overreact and What To Do About It
Sometimes, we might be speaking with a parent, a spouse, or a close friend, and something they do or say inspires within us an illogically extreme emotional reaction. We don't entirely know why in the moment, we're just instantly angry, scared, or anxious.
In these moments of heightened emotionality, we can say and do things that we later regret. In retrospect, we might hang our heads ashamed for behaving in a way that conflicts with who we are.
This week, we're going to talk about emotional hijacking, and how some of our neurological processes essentially override our rationality and push us to react in extreme ways, leaving us with the regretful feeling of not being sure what came over us.
Introduction to Brain Anatomy
Understanding why this happens requires knowledge of some basic brain anatomy, so bear with me.
Very simply put, the brain has two major components, the limbic system and the neocortex, each with numerous sub-components. The limbic system is responsible for our oldest and most basic functions, like bodily regulation, memory, and hormone secretion, while the neocortex, which evolved much later in our mammalian history, is responsible for the more advanced cognitive functions like language, visual and auditory processing, and creativity.
A crucial sub-component of the limbic system is the amygdala. The amygdala is the emotional center of the brain, serving as a repository for emotional memories from the time we're born. The amygdala alerts the rest of the brain when inbound sensory information matches a memory in its bank that was formed during a stressful or dangerous moment earlier in life. When we're feeling an intense emotion, the amygdala takes a snapshot and saves it for later in case it needs to identify a similar threatening situation in the future.
Interestingly, the amygdala is one of the few regions of the brain that's almost fully formed by the time we are born, so emotional memories can be stored long before we have the language to perceive what is happening. As newborns and early toddlers, we can have chaotic feelings without the words to describe those feelings, and the capacity to be then reminded of those chaotic feelings later in life without being sure which specific events caused them.
The last important piece is the thalamus, which transmits sensory inputs (sights, sounds, smells, touch sensations, etc.) from our environments to the appropriate regions in both the limbic system and neocortex.
To understand emotional hijacking, we need to understand how our most ancient, foundational neural components function and communicate with all the other brain regions.
The Antsy Amygdala
Oftentimes, the amygdala, phenomenal at storing intensely negative emotions like fear and anxiety from the time of birth, erroneously concludes a match between incoming sensory information and information stored from a previously threatening situation. This results in a sort of neural emergency alarm, thrusting the entire body into a fight or flight state of panic.
The amygdala proactively takes over the neural circuitry while the neocortex is still processing and initiates a fight or flight response, recruiting the rest of the brain to its urgent agenda of escaping or dominating the threat. We call this the emotional hijack.
The emotional hijack can easily be an overreaction to the inbound sensory information. It's possible the threat was correctly identified but grossly overestimated, or the amygdala perceived a threat when there was none, sounding the alarm unnecessarily.
Although this seems like a flaw of biology, it was evolutionarily advantageous for us to react as quickly as possible to perceived threats. Several milliseconds could be the difference between safely escaping a predator or becoming lunch. Overreacting to stimuli was a tiny price to pay compared to under-reacting in an environment where threats were abundant and unpredictable.
We most likely owe the survival of our species to this hypersensitive, albeit finicky, neural circuitry.
Quick and Dirty Leaves a Mess
Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at New York University, identified a neural pathway that helps explain these emotional, knee-jerk reactions in a new way. He discovered incoming sensory information gets routed to both the amygdala (emotional center of the brain), and the neocortex (logical center of the brain) simultaneously, denoted in the image below by the "low road" and the "high road"
This branching enables the amygdala to begin to respond before the neocortex can route the information through several levels of circuitry where it can fully perceive and comprehend the information to suggest a well-informed, nuanced response. The "quick and dirty" signal, circumventing the higher order processing of the neocortex (or sensory cortex), leaves ample opportunity for the amygdala to overreact based on incomplete or inaccurate information from the thalamus.
Once the neocortex has fully understood the information, it sends out signals that counteract those sent out by the amygdala, dampening the neural arousal the amygdala initiates. The amygdala's emergency signal gets shut off by an area in the neocortex called the left prefrontal lobe. As Daniel Goleman, author of the seminal work on emotional intelligence published in 1995, states, "the amygdala proposes, the prefrontal lobe disposes."
When presented with ambiguous or slightly similar sensory information, our rationality kicks in and quells the initial panic felt by the amygdala after a few short moments. Our instinct, however, is to act on this panic to eliminate the threat as quickly as possible. Fortunately, we're no longer in the physically dangerous environments of our ancestors and can often afford to pause for a few short beats.
The Cost of Being Hijacked
To get more into the neurological weeds, circuits from the limbic brain and the neocortex can conflict, sending opposing signals to each other. This is generally an uncomfortable sensation and can be described as neural static, sabotaging the neocortex's ability to properly perceive the environment, think rationally, and maintain a working memory.
A limbic system which has collected many emotional memories for protection and self-preservation will find many erroneous matches over the course of daily life. Such a limbic system will send panic-ridden signals to the neocortex continuously throughout the day and can have a destructive effect on a young child's capacity to learn, since their neocortex, the learning and creativity centers of the brain, are constantly being written over by fight or flight responses from the amygdala.
This is one of the main reasons children from disadvantaged backgrounds may describe troubles focusing, react extremely to seemingly benign situations, and generally be in high states of arousal in the absence of appropriate stimuli. Their amygdalas have stored an abundance of emotional memories to then react to if anything similar seems to come up again in the future. They're in a perpetual state of being emotionally hijacked.
As emotionally intelligent people, we must learn how to protect ourselves from overreacting and staying in a heightened state where our ability to think clearly and rationally is negatively affected. Emotional hijacking is a reflexive response beyond our control, but I believe we can train ourselves to minimize the likelihood of doing or saying something we'd regret while in these brief moments of panic.
1. Recognize the hijacking
We generally have a tendency to rationalize extreme reactions instead of scrutinizing the appropriateness of those reactions, which trains us to normalize these visceral, emotional responses. Remembering that we are biologically predisposed to having knee-jerk reactions and growing to expect them can help identify when we're responding illogically and stay level-headed. Our first response is very rarely the best one.
2. Make space
Once we recognize the hijacking, we have the ability to allow those emotions to run its course through our neural circuitry. If we remember we are predisposed to feeling extreme emotions in response to what are very often benign stimuli, we can create space between feeling panic and acting on panic to give our rational minds an opportunity to catch up and suggest better, more constructive behavioural options.
Luckily, we no longer live in a world full of physical danger where immediate physical or verbal action is usually the best response. The vast majority of our threats are best dealt with from a place of calm calculation and intentionality.
Routinely practicing mindfulness exercises can develop within us a keener awareness of our emotional states and can prime us to more quickly identify emotional responses that are routed in instinctual reflex instead of intention.
Perhaps most importantly, deep self-examination can help us identify which emotional memories are most responsible for our unproductive responses, giving us the opportunity to consciously unlearn that behaviour over time. Of course, this takes significant time and effort and can be accelerated with the help of a trained professional, but creating space between our emotions and our behaviour gives us a sense of control over our words and actions that feels like a superpower.
Like previously mentioned, it's expected that we all react viscerally and aggressively to some stimuli because of emotional memories stored from before we could even speak or fully comprehend what was going on around us. This means that even if we can't consciously conjure up visual or auditory memories of danger, times we have felt those emotions are still buried deep within our brain's circuitry.
Being emotionally hijacked is destructive and uncomfortable, but it's a sensation with which we are all familiar. The phenomenon has its roots in neurology, but that's no death sentence. Through understanding where these extreme emotions come from and acknowledging our ability to pause and act with more complete information, we take back our power. For the ultimate solution, however, we must find the patience to dig and the courage to confront whatever we may find.
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