Amygdala Hijack

Recently we saw a top cricketer in the news for abusing a scribe in public and later realising that it was a case of mistaken identity, sends out an apology. I’m sure, back in the dressing room, he would have been terribly embarrassed and regretted his actions.

When Paul Coelho, the famous Brazilian author of ‘The Alchemist’ commented – ““If you conquer yourself, then you conquer the world”, he was in fact referring to a potential seizure, something the internationally acclaimed psychologist and the author of top-seller ‘Emotional Intelligence’, Dr. Daniel Goleman referred to as a ‘hijack’. The only difference is that it is happening inside our brain, not in an aircraft. The hijackers are two almond-shaped set of neurons located deep inside our brain. And they are hijacking the left frontal cortex, which is our socially intelligent and logical brain.

Amygdala is the ‘emotional’ or ‘impulsive’ part of the brain. Most often it gets activated as a response to a stimulus which produces ‘fear’. Researches indicate that ‘Amygdala’ is an inherent instinct in animals to deal with a “fight or flight’ situation. The term “fight or flight” describes a mechanism in the body that enables humans and animals to rapidly mobilize a lot of energy in order to cope with threats to survival. This is done by activating a stress hormone called Cortisol. More about that later…

This classical survival trait of the animals progressed with the evolution of humans and is currently impacting our lives in the form of ‘stress’ or ‘distress’ to be precise. The modern version of amygdala can be a big pain and dangerous. Road rages to rampant shootouts and even terrorism has linkages to this part of our brain.

Defending the hijack

  1. Being aware: We need to ‘buy some time’ from the hijacker here. Realising the situation we are in, is the primary step. Where are we? In whose midst are we in? Who are the characters we are dealing with? Recognising the emotions you are going through is critical here. What triggered our emotion and why? People use different techniques here like counting or humour etc.
  2. Breathe: Focusing on the breath helps calm the body by slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and sharpening focus. When we pay attention to our breath, we are also bringing back the prefrontal cortex, the thinking brain to play.
  3. Analyse: Now you have access to the logical brain. Analyse the situation and activate rational thinking of this event. Your response would be logical and sensible.
  4. Post release: Once we are out of a hijack, it’s critical to take some time off to calm down before starting any important work or taking serious decisions.


One of the most important pre-emptive practices for amygdala hijack is Mindfulness. This practice which is believed to be used by ancient Buddhists thousands of years ago, was originally designed to deal with human suffering. In the modern era we use it to deal with depression. Mindfulness is simply being present in the moment and experiencing the most ordinary things possible: breath; bodily sensations; hearing; taste etc.

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