The amygdala can activate a person’s fight-or-flight response as a reaction to a real or perceived threat of danger. Amygdala hijack describes the perhaps unnecessary triggering of this response and the actions that follow it.

The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure in the brain. It is involved in processing emotions. There are two of these structures: one in each hemisphere of the brain. Both are located near the base.

This article will explore amygdala hijack, what causes it, and the signs and symptoms associated with it.

Outline of the brain to show amygdala hijack.Share on Pinterest
Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

The following sections will discuss amygdala hijack in more detail.

Fight-or-flight as a response to a threat

Early humans developed a fight-or-flight response to deal with threats and dangers. This is an automatic response to danger, and it allows people to react quickly, without the need to think.

The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for this reaction. When a person feels stressed or afraid, the amygdala releases stress hormones that prepare the body to fight the threat or flee from the danger.

Common emotions that trigger this response include fear, anger, anxiety, and aggression.

A rational reaction to a threat

The human brain has two frontal lobes, both of which are situated at the front of the organ. Reasoning takes place in the frontal lobes. Specifically, the frontal lobes are where a person rationalizes situations and makes decisions.

Although the amygdala works automatically, the frontal lobes allow people to process and think about their emotions.

When a person senses a threat, the amygdala may automatically activate the fight-or-flight response. However, the frontal lobes process the information to determine if the threat is real and what a logical response would be.

In a sense, the frontal lobes and amygdala are at odds with each other.

If a threat is not serious, the frontal lobes tend to take control, and most people will respond with a more logical, thought-out reaction. However, if the amygdala takes over in such instances, a fight-or-flight reaction takes over. This is amygdala hijack.

Learn more about the frontal lobes here.

Amygdala hijack

Psychologist Daniel Goleman first used the term “amygdala hijacking” in his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.

It refers to situations wherein the amygdala hijacks control of a person’s ability to respond rationally to a threat. This then leads to the person reacting in an intense, emotional way that may be out of proportion to the situation.

Without the ability to use their frontal lobes, a person is unable to think clearly. Therefore, they are not in control of their responses.

The amygdala triggers the release of hormones as part of the fight-or-flight reaction to a threat.

In most instances, if the threat is not linked to serious danger, the person will be able to rationalize it and react in a manner that is appropriate to their situation.

Amygdala hijack takes place when the structure triggers the fight-or-flight reaction when it is not warranted. The person is then unable to come to their own rational conclusion about how to react.

The amygdala causes the adrenal glands to release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol into the blood.

Adrenaline causes the air passages in the body to dilate. This allows the body to supply more oxygen than usual to the muscles.

This hormone also causes the blood vessels to contract, allowing the body to redirect blood to the major muscle groups, including the heart and lungs.

The release of adrenaline also causes the pupils to dilate, thereby enhancing a person’s vision.

During the fight-or-flight response process, the body also increases its blood sugar levels in order to increase energy levels.

All of these reactions take place to allow a person to fight the danger more effectively or to flee from it if necessary.

If a person is in genuine danger, everything above is appropriate to their situation. This is when the fight-or-flight response is effective.

However, if the threat or danger is not real or not very high and a person’s body still reacts by experiencing everything above, they may be experiencing amygdala hijack.

Some other signs and symptoms of amygdala hijack include:

  • a rapid heartbeat
  • sweaty palms
  • goosebumps

During amygdala hijack, a person may react in a way that they could regret later. This may include being aggressive, argumentative, or violent in a manner that is dramatically out of proportion to the situation.

A person can ease the symptoms of amygdala hijack. Over time, they may also be able to stop them altogether.

If the person feels the symptoms of amygdala hijack beginning to appear, it is important that they take the time to try to activate their frontal lobes.

For example, if they feel stressed and their hands begin to sweat or their heart rate quickens, they should try to take a break and walk away from the situation that has triggered this response.

If the person takes a short break and calms down, they may then be able to rationally think about the situation and decide on a more appropriate response to the stressor.

It is a good idea for people to try to understand how their body reacts to stressful situations. This could mean thinking about previous instances of amygdala hijack in order to see what triggered the response.

In doing this, the person may be able to prevent such a response in the future.

If a person has stress or anxiety, it may impact their ability to rationally respond to stressful situations.

If they feel that they regularly experience stress or anxiety, they should seek medical help.

Symptoms of stress and anxiety include:

  • excessive worrying
  • a feeling of unease
  • a feeling of tension
  • headaches
  • body pains
  • high blood pressure
  • difficulty sleeping

Stress is a response to an external issue, and it usually goes away. Specifically, once the situation that triggers the stress has resolved, the feeling of stress should also disappear.

However, anxiety is a response to stress. A person with anxiety may regularly experience feelings of apprehension or dread that do not go away. These feelings can interfere with their daily life.

Anxiety can arise even without the presence of a stressful situation.

A doctor can often help a person deal with their anxiety by suggesting cognitive behavioral therapy, stress management and relaxation techniques, and certain medications.

Learn about the differences between stress and anxiety here.

The amygdala triggers a person’s fight-or-flight response. This leads to the release of hormones that prepare the body to fight the source of danger or flee from it.

Amygdala hijack occurs when the amygdala activates the fight-or-flight response when there is no serious threat to a person’s safety. During amygdala hijack, the person may not be able to develop a rational response.

Signs and symptoms of amygdala hijack include a racing heartbeat, sweaty palms, and the inability to think clearly.

People can try to prevent amygdala hijack by becoming more aware of how they respond to stress. By noticing the signs and symptoms, they may be able to step back and calm down before amygdala hijack occurs.