Updated: Oct 30, 2022
The Amgydala Hijack
Your heart is racing, you can’t think, you can’t get a deep breath, you're shaking, sweating all over, you want to yell or cry or run away -but there is nothing really serious happening. It feels like something serious is happening. It feels like there is danger or a threat targeted right at you.
Then all of a sudden, you’re reacting based on how you feel. And your reaction doesn’t match the situation. Suppose your spouse or partner is talking over you as you’re trying to tell them something important. The interaction overflows you with intense emotion, enraging you to a fight response until you are yelling just to be heard. You feel as if you have lost control of yourself.
Later you feel foolish, embarrassed, maybe even humiliated and ashamed at losing control. You’re left wondering, “What even happened, there? Why did I get so angry?”
And worse, you might be asking, “Am I crazy?”
The answer is, no, you’re not crazy. That was actually activation of your trauma-trained brain.
This is What Happened:
A phenomenon called the amygdala hijack completely took you over. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for the pairing of emotions with events that become memories. It also plays a part in how you respond emotionally and behaviorally to a situation. It kicks in survival instincts, like fight, flight, freeze, or fawn, such as what happened in the interaction above.
The symptoms of an amygdala hijack are caused by the body's chemical response to stress. When you experience stress, your brain releases two kinds of stress hormones: cortisol and adrenaline. Both of these hormones prepare your body to fight or to flee.
Your body sensations, especially, can be scary because it feels like so much fear and anxiety is running through your body. It’s easy to believe what your body is saying: there is danger -you should be worried! But your body is being influenced by those hormones adrenaline and cortisol being released to put you into fight or flight action.
So, the amygdala is the culprit for the physical effects and unwanted symptoms in the experience of stress, anxiety, trauma, and fear (i.e., rapid beating heart, sweaty palms, hot flashes, shortness of breath, trembling, nausea, stomach cramps) -not an actual threat.
But What Made My Amygdala Respond Like That?
You can imagine what could happen when you have memories paired with fear or powerlessness, like the ones that develop through trauma, that become triggered.
Hearing someone sigh in just the right way could activate a memory of your mother being disappointed or upset with you. Seeing a smirk on someone’s face could prompt memories of the bully who terrorized you. Not being recognized in a meeting could link to painful feelings of not being important enough to be noticed in a big family growing up. Your best friend moving away might signal the memory of abandonment when your father moved away when your parents divorced. Smelling cigarette smoke can take you right back to your abusive childhood home.
The trauma-influenced amygdala is looking through each present-day experience for such triggers. Is there something I dislike, hate, or distrust here? Is there something about this that will hurt me? Is this something I fear? Will there be something I can’t handle?
If the amygdala finds any kind of proof of a threat, then: react, react, react! This is danger! This is a crisis! We must be prepared to fight it off, run away from it, hold our feelings inside, or become compliant!
Even in a situation where you are safe and there is no reason for these responses, the amygdala is primed to help you through with anxious and impulsive reactions, which it considers protective measures.
Your brain is so familiar with this one train of thought: “I am unsafe, the world is unsafe, I must be prepared”, that it does not know there exists real safety. These reactions are safety to the trauma-trained brain. This is part of the learned trauma cycle that helped you survive what happened to you.
But the learned trauma cycle can be disrupted. (Part 1)
How Do I Stop This?
This mostly happens automatically and through unconscious and unprocessed memory, which is why you feel you are not able to stop this process. In this case, knowledge truly is power to an amygdala hijack.
Becoming aware of exactly what is happening in your body, what you are thinking towards the situation, and that your brain and stress hormones are aiding the response is a way to gain some control over an amygdala hijack.
Knowing your triggers and making a plan for how to handle it if it ever comes up, is another way to take charge.
In the midst of an amygdala hijack, if your brain will let you, try to remember that what you are experiencing is temporary and will end -that you are really okay and will be okay.
Breathing is incredibly helpful. Taking a moment to breathe can help your brain catch up to reality and begin to think logically rather than impulsively.
Try to recognize in these moments that unless you are truly in a harmful situation, you are safe. Your brain has misread the situation, and your body is over-responding which makes it seem as if there is a threat to you. In reality, this is just a brain-body connection forged through traumatic experiences that is ruining a moment. You are not crazy.