The Amygdala Hijack and Anxiety Management (2022)

The Amygdala Hijack and Anxiety Management (1)

All of us experience fear and worry, but what if this is a regular occurrence? What if otherwise straightforward decisions become plagued with overthinking and needless worry?

Anxiety disorders are difficult to handle because they involve a primal part of our brain whose sole purpose is to motivate us to not do something — making the thoughts invasive and feelings, uncomfortable.

Once a key part of our survival, our brains evolved in a way that supported anxiety when it arose; to take the power away from our free thought and into an automatic and reactive state that has us acting instinctively on our anxiety.

Think of a time where you’ve acted out of fear only to regret your decision later as the anxiety subdued. How your rational thinking can quickly turn irrational and all logic seems to leave the room.

(Video) How to Stay in Control in Stressful Situations [Amygdala Hijacking Explained]

This process is called the “Amygdala Hijack” penned by Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ”. During a hijack, our primal, emotionally driven limbic system overrides our ability to think logically during fearful and high-stress situations.

Suppose you are walking through a forest only to spot a wild Bear in the distance. At first, it doesn’t notice you but as you take another step, it catches your eye. Suddenly your heart begins to race, your eyes dilate and your mind is flooded with thoughts urging you to run away.

As if on auto-pilot, you respond immediately and flee in the opposite direction to safety; feeling dazed and breathless as the adrenaline that flowed through your body relinquishes its hold on you. What just happened? For a moment, you had little control, or thought, about anything other than your need to run. Your mind was hijacked.

In moments where our wellbeing is under threat, the primal part of our brain that houses our Amygdalae (the two almond-shaped Nuclei that govern our fear responses) is able to take control. Like a passenger grabbing hold of the wheel, we lose control over where our anxiety is driving us.

In terms of our ancestors, this was an incredibly valuable tool. Where danger was imminent, our brains had to ensure we responded urgently to threats (like that of a hungry predator) in order to increase our chance of survival. To achieve this, our primal brain is able to override our slower pre-frontal cortex (which governs rational thinking), to stop us from critically thinking as this would delay our reactions. In this, we act strictly based on our anxiety. After all, time is precious when danger is present.

Whilst important to early humans on Earth, physical threats like the one described above are now few and far between to most of us in modern times. Our Amygdala, however, has yet to lose the ability to hijack our awareness.

(Video) 6 Steps to Emotional Self-Regulation - Overcoming Amygdala Hijack

An inability to stop this hijacking can result in maladaptive behaviors that hinder our wellbeing if left unnoticed.

Our minds can’t distinguish between physical and emotional threats. As emotional creatures with studies showing that emotional pain occurs in the same brain areas as physical pain, our Amygdala can override our senses in response to emotional threats — not just physical ones.

Unfortunately, this is an issue in our current climate, where the potential for emotional stress is everywhere. From friends to work, to relationships, to social media, and the negative bias of the news, the potential for threats to our emotional wellbeing is all around us. Not only this but our PERCEPTION — that can be rooted in limiting beliefs and mental disorders— can skew our experiences into threatening ones even IF there are no real threats present.

Maybe you suffer from low self-worth and whilst dating you notice your love interest has read your message and not replied. There may be several reasons for this but your lack of self-worth and the anxiety disorder you suffer from turn the scenario, that otherwise could be innocent, into one where your emotional wellbeing is potentially under threat.

As our brains fail to distinguish between emotional and physical threats, your Amygdala is able to hijack your senses JUST as it would in the Bear scenario. Furthermore, maybe your love interest starts distancing himself. You’ve only been on a few dates and it shouldn’t bother you that much but now you find yourself engaging in chase behaviors.

(Video) Amygdala hijack - ENGLISH

You begin to reach out even though you know you shouldn’t out of FEAR that in them rejecting you, your beliefs of low self-worth will be confirmed. Just as your primal brain motivates you to run away from the Bear, so too does it drive you to reach out in the hopes that your emotional wellbeing is restored if they reciprocate your feelings.

After reaching out and soothing your anxiety, you begin to realize you reacted irrationally. If someone is unresponsive to you, that says more about them than it does of you. You don’t want someone who doesn’t want you, so why are you chasing? Because your anxiety lacks rationality and in times where you feel threatened, even emotionally, your prefrontal cortex is overridden. As a result, you lack logic and your irrational anxiety wins.

The problem with this sort of reaction is not only that it can be highly irrational, but that the problem is never solved. Our primal brains work on the short-term emotional repair. It doesn’t care that you’ll feel shameful for overriding your boundaries after you’ve sent the text, it simply wants you to feel better RIGHT NOW. This method of living can wreak havoc in your life if left unchecked.

It’s the same principle as someone with social anxiety avoiding social settings. The anxiety motivates you to avoid communication out of fear of judgment but does that truly solve the problem? No — in fact, it reinforces it. You still have anxiety around communication when the anxiety subsides, only your brain now thinks this is how you should act under those circumstances now.

It is a problem that we MUST bring awareness to.

The key to out-thinking the unthinking Amygdala hijack lies in the development of our emotional intelligence. We can’t predict when we’re going to be triggered or when a hijack may occur but what we do have control over is our reactions in light of our triggers. Do we react instinctively – to relieve our discomfort, or do we intentionally place distance between ourselves and our anxious thoughts?

(Video) In the Anxiety Disorders--How the Amygdala Learns to Quiet Down

Awareness is essential for us to achieve the above. After all, without it, we have no hopes of stopping a hijack if unaware of its manifestation. The ability for us to observe our thoughts without judgment — a technique that you can develop through meditation— is one of the most essential skills you can develop in life.

On top of this, anxiety relief skills such as reframing negative thoughts, calming your nervous system through breathwork techniques, and stepping away from the triggering situation will help ease real-time discomfort so that you don’t feel compelled to search for quick fixes as a means to feel better.

Essentially, all of this is aimed at giving us time to assess and make proper judgments in regard to our anxiety. On a neurological level, it’s allowing our pre-frontal cortex -which naturally lags behind- to catch up to our current predicament in order for us to make less irrational, anxiety-driven choices, and more logical ones that will aid us in the long term.

As Goleman himself states;

“one key marital competence is for partners to learn to soothe their own distressed feelings…nothing gets resolved positively when husband or wife is in the midst of an emotional hijacking. “— Daniel Goleman

Daniel Goleman writes of this extensively in his book “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ” and I urge anyone who has trouble with anxiety to check it out.


Does anxiety cause amygdala hijack? ›

An amygdala hijack occurs when any strong emotion — anger, fear, anxiety, or even extreme excitement — impairs the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain in the frontal lobe that regulates rational thought.

Does the amygdala control anxiety? ›

The amygdala initiates the brain processes that create both fear and anxiety. It has long been known that animals without amygdala do not make fear responses.

How does the amygdala react to anxiety? ›

Fight-or-flight as a response to a threat

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.

How do you train your brain to stop the fear? ›

8 Successful Mental Habits to Defeat Fear, Worry, and Anxiety
  1. Don't figure things out by yourself. ...
  2. Be real with how you feel. ...
  3. Be OK with some things being out of your control. ...
  4. Practice self-care. ...
  5. Be conscious of your intentions. ...
  6. Focus on positive thoughts. ...
  7. Practice mindfulness.
Apr 3, 2018

How do you treat amygdala naturally? ›

Calm Down and Release the Amygdala - YouTube

Can your body get stuck in fight or flight mode? ›

However, if you are under chronic stress or have experienced trauma, you can get stuck in sympathetic fight or flight or dorsal vagal freeze and fold. When this happens, it can lead to disruptions in everything from basic life skills like sleeping, self-care and eating, to complexities like learning and self-soothing.

What brain chemical causes anxiety? ›

Epinephrine/Norepinephrine Norepinephrine is responsible for many of the symptoms of anxiety. These hormones and neurotransmitters are responsible for the adrenaline and energy that is pumped through your body when you're stressed or anxious, and cause changes like rapid heartbeat, sweating, etc.

What role does the amygdala play in anxiety disorders? ›

The amygdala is responsible for the expression of fear and aggression as well as species-specific defensive behavior, and it plays a role in the formation and retrieval of emotional and fear-related memories.

What reduces activity in the amygdala? ›

Oxytocin reduces amygdala activity, increases social interactions and reduces anxiety-like behavior irrespective of NMDAR antagonism - PMC. The .

How do I stop hyperstimulation anxiety? ›

Whether it's with meditation or meditative movement techniques like Qigong, yoga, or other techniques that relax you, give yourself a break during the day to simply be. Research shows that activities that promote syncing movement with breath can be incredibly helpful in reducing low mood and anxiousness.

How do I calm my nervous system down? ›

What Things Calm an Overactive Nervous System?
  1. Exercising: This can help release endorphins, which have a calming effect.
  2. Yoga: Yoga focuses on breathing and relaxation, which can help calm the nervous system.
  3. Meditation: This can help focus the mind and calm the nervous system.
May 23, 2022

How do you regulate your nervous system after trauma? ›

How Do You Calm Down the Parasympathetic Nervous System?
  1. Meditation and progressive relaxation.
  2. Identifying and focusing on a word that you find peaceful or calming.
  3. Exercise, yoga, tai chi, and similar activities.
  4. Spending time in a serene natural place.
  5. Deep breathing.
  6. Playing with small children and pets.
Mar 2, 2020

What is the 333 rule for anxiety? ›

It involves looking around your environment to identify three objects and three sounds, then moving three body parts. Many people find this strategy helps focus and ground them when anxiety overwhelms them.

How do you rewire an anxious brain? ›

Carving out time for your hobbies can be a great form of self-care if you live with anxiety, but there's another benefit too. Each time you learn a new skill, you're increasing your brain's ability to rewire itself. Any new skill you learn will help with this.

What supplements calm amygdala? ›

According to "Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine," adaptogenic herbs that can help to moderate activity in the amygdala and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression include rhodiola, Siberian ginseng, licorice and valerian root.

What foods are good for amygdala? ›

Other foods that may help with anxiety
  • Turkey, bananas and oats. These are good sources of the amino acid tryptophan, which is converted to serotonin in the body and may promote relaxation and anxiety relief ( 53 , 54 ).
  • Eggs, meat and dairy products. ...
  • Chia seeds. ...
  • Citrus fruits and bell peppers. ...
  • Almonds. ...
  • Blueberries.

Can your body shut down from anxiety? ›

"When the body cannot handle emotional overload, it simply begins to shut down. And that is often manifested by a sense of extreme tiredness and fatigue," says Kalayjian.

How do you break the fight-or-flight response? ›

You can practice diaphragmatic breathing by placing your hands on your lower ribs. Try to breathe the air right into your hands. While diaphragmatic breathing can help alleviate pain, we can also reduce fight-or-flight responses by quieting our brain. Meditation helps with this.

What happens if you are constantly in fight-or-flight mode? ›

Continuous boosts of adrenaline can harm blood vessels, raise blood pressure and increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Worrying and fear increase our mental load and can put further strain on the sympathetic nervous system; physical symptoms persist, recovery via beneficial rest and sleep does not happen.

Is anxiety just a chemical imbalance? ›

It's not just serotonin either - most neurotransmitters influence anxiety in some way, and in some cases an overabundance of a chemical can lead to anxiety. If you have anxiety you can also develop chemical imbalances that were not previously present, because anxiety affects your brain chemicals.

Is anxiety a lack of serotonin? ›

Anxiety. Anxiety, including obsessive-compulsive forms of anxiety, may indicate a person has low serotonin. Anxiety that comes on suddenly and appears unrelated to something else, such as a recent trauma or stressor, is often due to a serotonin issue. Chronic stress and anxiety may also deplete serotonin.

Which herbal treatment is linked to reducing anxiety? ›

Herbal treatment for anxiety: Is it effective?
  • Kava. ...
  • Passion flower. ...
  • Valerian. ...
  • Chamomile. ...
  • Lavender. ...
  • Lemon balm.

Can you heal the amygdala? ›

The functions of the amygdala, hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex that are affected by trauma can also be reversed. The brain is ever-changing and recovery is possible.

What happens when someone has an exaggerated amygdala response? ›

The exaggerated right amygdala response observed in anxious children may reflect increased automatic or unconscious processing of the fear stimuli, as suggested for adult subjects.

Does meditation shrink the amygdala? ›

Abstract. Recent evidence suggests that the effects of meditation practice on affective processing and resilience have the potential to induce neuroplastic changes within the amygdala. Notably, literature speculates that meditation training may reduce amygdala activity during negative affective processing.

How do you remove amygdala? ›

Amygdalotomy is a form of psychosurgery which involves the surgical removal or destruction of the amygdala, or parts of the amygdala. It is usually a last-resort treatment for severe aggressive behavioral disorders and similar behaviors including hyperexcitability, violent outbursts, and self-mutilation.

What is amygdala hijack examples? ›

Amygdala hijack is an emotional response to stress, often thought of as losing control of one's emotions. An example of this is where you are talking to a friend and they do not appear to be listening to you, ignore what you say, or maybe talk over the top of you.

How can I calm my amygdala naturally? ›

Calm Down and Release the Amygdala - YouTube

Can you heal your amygdala? ›

Therefore, damage to the amygdala can cause serious problems, such as poor decision-making and impaired emotional memories. Fortunately, with the right combination of therapy and medication, you can reduce the symptoms of amygdala damage and get back control of your life.

Can you surgically remove anxiety? ›

"Capsulotomy is an effective method for relieving anxiety and obsessions, and its effects remain many years after the operation," says Christian Rück, who has been carefully following up recipients of this treatment. "Many seriously troubled patients feel that the operation saved their lives.

What part of the brain controls anxiety? ›

The amygdala is responsible for the expression of fear and aggression as well as species-specific defensive behavior, and it plays a role in the formation and retrieval of emotional and fear-related memories.


1. 2-Minute Neuroscience: Amygdala
(Neuroscientifically Challenged)
2. Manager Minute or Two! - Amygdala Hijack
(Sarah Noll Wilson)
3. Amygdala Hijack
(Gerard Vargas)
4. Daniel Goleman's explanation of "amygdala hijacks"
(Daniel Goleman Clips)
5. Amygdala hijack fight or flight response|how to stop anxiety
(How to Stop Anxiety News)
6. Fight Flight Freeze – Anxiety Explained For Teens
(Anxiety Canada)

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