Amygdala Hijacks After Traumatic Experiences
An amygdala hijack is a term used to describe a sudden and overwhelming emotional response that is triggered by a perceived threat. The amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure in the brain, is responsible for processing emotions such as fear and anger. In an amygdala hijack, the amygdala is activated before the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for rational thinking and decision-making, can fully process the situation. This results in an immediate, intense emotional response that is not proportional to the situation. This blog aims to explore strategies for managing amygdala hijacks after traumatic experiences.
What Is The Amygdala?
The amygdala is located in the temporal lobes of the brain; It plays a key role in the brain’s fear response, processing emotions such as fear, anger and pleasure. The amygdala is also involved in the formation of memories, particularly those associated with emotional events. It is active when we process information that is emotionally relevant, like the face of someone we love, a scary scene in a movie or a traumatic event. It helps us to identify the emotional significance of events and to respond appropriately to them. It is considered as the emotional brain, forming a part of the limbic system.
Our Fight Or Flight Response
The amygdala is closely connected to the body’s fight or flight response, which is an automatic physiological response to perceived threats. When the amygdala perceives a threat, it then sends a signal to the hypothalamus, which activates the sympathetic nervous system. This causes the release of adrenaline and other stress hormones, which prepare the body for physical action by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate, and diverting blood flow away from nonessential functions and towards the muscles. This response is intended to help us respond quickly and effectively to danger by either fighting or fleeing.
The fight or flight response is a natural and healthy response to danger, but if it is triggered too frequently or for too long, it can be harmful. Chronic stress and exposure to traumatic events can cause the amygdala to become hyperactive, leading to anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders.
To fully understand what an amygdala hijack is, you need to dive a little deeper into the other area of the brain responsible for regulating emotions and behaviour – the frontal lobes, which form part of the cerebral cortex.
This area of the brain is responsible for regulating voluntary actions like thinking, reasoning, movement, planning and decision-making, making it a little more rational than the amygdala.
In the occurrence of a physical threat, the amygdala may jump to the fight-or-flight response. In an amygdala hijack, the amygdala perceives a threat and activates the fight or flight response before the prefrontal cortex can fully process the situation, resulting in an immediate, intense emotional response that is out of proportion to the situation at hand. However, when not hijacked, the front lobes will process information you’re receiving to help you determine if the danger is real. If the danger isn’t urgent, the frontal lobes help you determine what to do in response to the stress.
For moderate or mild threats, the prefrontal cortex would inhibit the amygdala’s emotional response, putting the brakes on a hijack. However, in cases of high stress, trauma, or other factors that can affect the brain’s functioning, the prefrontal cortex may be unable to exert this control. This lack of regulation can lead to impulsive behaviour, poor decision making, and a prolonged emotional state, which is what is known as an amygdala hijack.
What Are The Symptoms Of An Amygdala Hijack?
Amygdala hijack symptoms can vary depending on the individual and the specific situation, but some common symptoms include:
- Rapid heartbeat and breathing: The fight or flight response increases heart rate and breathing rate to prepare the body for physical action.
- Sweating: The body may sweat in response to the release of stress hormones, which can cause a sensation of heat.
- Trembling or shaking: The body may tremble or shake as a result of the release of adrenaline and other stress hormones.
- Nausea or stomach distress: The digestive system may slow down or shut down during a fight or flight response.
- Dizziness or lightheadedness: The body may divert blood flow away from the brain during a fight or flight response, which can cause dizziness or lightheadedness.
- Difficulty thinking clearly or making decisions: The intense emotional response of an amygdala hijack can make it difficult to think clearly or make rational decisions.
- Anger, rage or panic: The amygdala is responsible for processing emotions such as anger, rage and fear, and an amygdala hijack can make the individual feel intense anger, rage or panic.
- Dissociation or feeling detached from reality: In some cases, an amygdala hijack can cause an individual to feel detached from reality or dissociated from their body or surroundings.
- Impaired judgement: The intense emotional response can cloud the judgement of the individual and lead to irrational decisions.
Keep in mind that these symptoms are not exclusive to an amygdala hijack and may be caused by other factors. It is important to consult with a mental health professional for a proper diagnosis and treatment.
Managing An Amygdala Hijack In The Aftermath Of Trauma?
However, it is possible to manage and prevent an amygdala hijack by developing a heightened awareness of your body and emotions. This can involve acknowledging the physical and emotional symptoms that occur during an amygdala hijack, understanding the root cause, and working to regain control by deactivating the amygdala and activating the frontal lobes.
When you feel significantly stressed or threatened, acknowledge how your body is feeling and what it is doing. What you feel is your body’s flight-or-fight response. Take stock of your physical symptoms and emotions. Acknowledging and understanding how this feel allows you, next time to recognise the feelings quicker, giving you a chance to change/stop the response. You do this by acknowledging it and working to regain control. Reminding yourself that it is an automatic response, but not the most logical one, can be helpful.
Additionally, you can look to adopt the following exercises when your fight or flight response is triggered unnecessary.
- Deep breathing: Taking deep, slow breaths can help to calm the body and reduce the physical symptoms of a fight or flight response.
- Mindfulness: Being present in the moment and focusing on your breath, body sensations, or a calming word or phrase can help to reduce the emotional intensity of an amygdala hijack.
- Progressive muscle relaxation: Tensing and then relaxing each muscle group can help to reduce physical tension and promote relaxation.
- Grounding techniques: Using your five senses to focus on the present moment can help to reduce feelings of dissociation and bring you back to reality.
- Reframing: Changing the way you think about a situation can help to reduce the emotional intensity of an amygdala hijack.
- Self-talk: Using positive self-talk can help to regulate emotions and reduce the emotional intensity of an amygdala hijack.
- Emotional regulation skills: Using coping skills such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), or other evidence-based techniques can help to regulate emotions and decrease the likelihood of an amygdala hijack.
- Medication: In some cases, medication may be prescribed to help regulate emotions and reduce the likelihood of an amygdala hijack.
When you feel less stressed or have calmed down, you can then activate your frontal cortex. Begin by thinking about what triggered or activated the fight or flight response and how you felt. Then, consider responses you should have had; these are likely to be more thoughtful and rational. If you still feel emotional, give yourself more time.
After the response has passed, take time to review what happened. Consider the triggers that led to the fight-or-flight response; recognising these warning signs may allow you to handle the stress more easily.
Preventing An Amygdala Hijack In The Aftermath Of Trauma?
Trauma can result in an amygdala hijack, where the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions and stress, overreacts to perceived threats. To prevent this, it is important to reduce exposure to triggers that can cause an amygdala hijack, and to develop emotional regulation skills. This can be done by identifying personal triggers and avoiding them, or by using techniques such as mindfulness to gain better control over one’s emotional responses. Strategies that may be helpful in preventing an amygdala hijack include:
Keep a journal to track your emotional responses, and try to identify patterns or triggers that lead to an amygdala hijack. Once you know what triggers you, you can take steps to avoid or manage them.
Chronic stress can make the amygdala hyperactive and increase the likelihood of an amygdala hijack. Practising stress management techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, meditation, or exercise can help to reduce stress and lower the risk of an amygdala hijack.
Emotional regulation skills
Learning and practising emotional regulation skills such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), or other evidence-based techniques can help to regulate emotions and decrease the likelihood of an amygdala hijack.
Adequate sleep is important for emotional regulation; lack of sleep can contribute to amygdala hijacks.
Talk therapy can help to address underlying emotional and psychological issues that may be contributing to the amygdala hijacks, such as past traumas or negative patterns of thinking.
In some cases, medication such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication may be prescribed to help regulate emotions and reduce the likelihood of an amygdala hijack.
Mindfulness practices such as meditation and yoga can help to reduce the emotional intensity of an amygdala hijack by promoting relaxation and emotional regulation.
The fight or flight response, triggered by the amygdala, is a physiological response to perceived danger or stress. The term “amygdala hijack” refers to a situation where the amygdala’s emotional response is activated before the prefrontal cortex can process the situation, resulting in an intense emotional response that can be disproportionate to the situation and lead to impulsive behaviour and poor decision-making.
People who have experienced trauma are particularly susceptible to amygdala hijacks due to the hypervigilance and hyperarousal that can result from traumatic experiences. The symptoms of an amygdala hijack in someone with a history of trauma can be similar to those without, including rapid heartbeat and breathing, sweating, trembling or shaking, nausea, dizziness, difficulty thinking clearly, anger, rage, panic, dissociation, and impaired judgement.
To manage amygdala hijacks and the impact of trauma, it’s crucial to work with a mental health professional who can help you identify triggers, develop stress management and emotional regulation techniques, and address underlying emotional and psychological issues. By doing so, you can learn to regulate your physiological and emotional responses to stress and prevent the amygdala hijack from controlling your behaviour and emotions.