Emotional Hijacking: Why it happens and what we can do about it

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Have you ever had a time your emotions took control over you?  Maybe you reacted without thinking, said something you wish you hadn’t or done something impulsive you regretted afterwards.  When moments like this happen people often say they “weren’t being themselves” or they weren’t thinking straight. Why does this happen and how can we train the different parts of our brains to be more integrated?

Our brains in a nutshell:

  1. The Reptilian Brain (Primitive Brain) – this is the part of our brain we are unconscious of.  This includes breathing, body temperature and heart rate, but also our survival instincts.  When the body perceives it’s in danger or imminent threat this part of the brain takes over and prepares to fight, flee or freeze (shut down) to optimise survival.
  2. Limbic Brain (Emotional Brain) – this is the part of our brain that contains the amygdala, the part that assesses external or internal stressors and determines whether we need to go straight to survival mode (fight/flight/freeze) or can consult the thinking part of our brain, the neocortex.
  3. Neocortex (Thinking Brain) – this is the part of our brain that makes us human and the last to develop over the life span.  It is responsible for complex/abstract thinking, language, logic, creativity and empathy.  The Neocortex is slow to respond to the signals of the emotional brain and therefore shuts down when life-threatening stress occurs or is perceived.

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Why emotions take over:

When we experience emotions such as fear, anger or stress our limbic system can perceive it as life-threatening (whether or not we are actually in danger).  The thinking part of our brain shuts down and we act on impulse to keep ourselves “safe” and our reptilian brain takes over (heart rate increases, muscles tense, blood flow increases etc) to prepare our bodies to respond to the “threat”.

How can we train our emotional brain to get the signals right more often?:

We can regulate our nervous systems to work more efficiently by becoming more aware of the emotional and physical cues from our bodies.  If we can tame our emotions and aroused states, we can keep our Thinking Brains online and make better choices in responding.  Regulating our emotions and body signals sends the message to the limbic system we are not in danger and allows the Thinking Brain to think!

We can regulate our emotions and physical sensations by changing the pace of our breath, grounding ourselves, doing something active like walking or cleaning the kitchen, practicing mindfulness, yoga, or reaching out to others in support.  People who have had multiple traumatic or stressful life experiences or insecure attachment figures often get dysregulated more often, however we know our brain’s neural pathways can change throughout the lifespan. The more we practice ways of calming ourselves (no matter what our history is) the better our limbic system can be at judging real vs perceived danger.  Having trusting relationships, secure attachments histories and safe living environments are protective factors for an integrated nervous system.

Resources:

About Paul D. Maclean’s Triune Brain Theory

Dr. Dan Siegel writes a few books to help everyday people understand the neuroscience behind our psychology and offers strategies for parents, teenagers and adults, particularly Mindsight and Brainstorm.

 Check out Dan’s Ted talk about mindfulness and neural integration for more understanding on this topic.

Written by

Kady Leibovitz
MA Clinical Social Work
BSc Psychology
Licensed Clinical Social Worker  

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