Welcome back to our series on the fight-or-flight response, and a big high five if you are still with us after the anatomy lesson in the last article. Part 2 will build upon the knowledge we gained in Fight-or-Flight Series (Part 1): What is the Fight-or-Flight Response? and discuss what’s known as the amygdala hijack, or an overreaction to stress.
Overview of the Fight-or-Flight Response
Whether you are facing a physical or emotional threat, our bodies respond the same way to each, by generating a quick response known as the fight-or-flight response. As discussed in Part 1, the fight-or-flight response triggers a cascade of physical changes in the body via the autonomic nervous system. As a result, the body pumps out adrenaline to help you “fight” the threat or flee to safety (“flight”).
Historically, this response was the result of our ancestors’ need to survive against physical threats. However, today’s threats look much differently than they did for our ancestors. While there are far fewer physical threats than there once were, psychological threats seem to run rampant due to the pressures of modern-day life. A perfect example of this is the response that you feel in times of anger, aggression, fear, or stress. All of these emotions have the potential to activate the fight-or-flight response. What’s worse, it may result in a sudden overreaction to the situation and lead to regret or remorse later on.
This overreaction to stress is known as the “amygdala hijack,” which was coined in 1995 by the psychologist, Daniel Goleman.
What Happens During an Amygdala Hijack?
An amygdala (pronounced ah-mig-da-la) hijack occurs when a stressful situation triggers the emotional center in the brain (the amygdala) to take over, aka “hijack,” your response.
Related: What does the amygdala do? Known as the emotional center of the brain, the amygdala is mainly responsible for processing your response to fear and threats. Although the amygdala is supposed to protect us, its response can sometimes interfere when the threats are more subtle in nature.
During an amygdala hijack, all conscious and rational thought that comes from your frontal lobe is turned off in order to activate the fight-or-flight response. Without input from the frontal lobe, you won’t be able to:
- Think clearly
- Make appropriate decisions
- Control your responses to the environment around you
During an amygdala hijack, adrenaline and/or cortisol is released from the body to initiate the fight-or-flight response. Normally, our bodies are equipped to handle short bursts of adrenaline that allow us to decide whether to “fight” or flee to safety. However, if threats continue indefinitely, the body remains in a heightened state of arousal that is sustained by high levels of cortisol.
Over time, a heightened state of arousal can affect your body in many ways. Continuous amounts of cortisol in your system can create a constant state of stress in which our bodies become accustomed to being on high alert. Not only is this physically and mentally exhausting, but it can lead to many health conditions including:
- High blood pressure
- Exacerbation of myalgia (muscle pain)
- Gastrointestinal diseases
- Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction
- Increased incidence of mental health disorders
- An increased incidence of chronic pain
Mental Health and the Amygdala
An abnormal (or overly sensitive) fight-or-flight response may be seen in some individuals with a history of mental health disorders. For them, the response is provoked either too frequently or at inappropriate times. This can be exacerbated in people with:
- Chemical imbalances in the brain, commonly seen in anxiety and bipolar disorders
- Current or past history of emotional or physical trauma
- A history of verbal or physical abuse
- Longterm high stress situations (even when there is no physical threat of danger)
Fueled by high cortisol levels, chronic stress and certain mental health disorders can affect the long-term stability of the emotional centers in the brain. Ultimately, this increases your risk of an amygdala hijack and the negative consequences that may follow.
Researchers have studied the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and have found higher amygdala activation, especially emotions like fear and anxiety. Similar findings have also been observed in social anxiety disorder and panic disorder. Both of these results point to the fact that people with some mental health disorders may have poorer control over the stress response than someone without a history of these mental health issues.
Even in the absence of any mental health disorder, chronic stress can wreak havoc on our brain’s emotional centers, leading to higher amounts of fear and anxiety. It may even affect short-term memory, interpersonal relationships, and your ability to read others’ emotions.
So, knowing this, how can we get out of this heightened state of survival when it is no longer warranted? How can we learn to be more reflective as opposed to reactive? Let’s learn more about 4 ways to prevent an amygdala hijack.
4 Ways to Prevent an Amygdala Hijack
Learning ways to prevent an amygdala hijack and treat an overactive fight-or-flight response can positively influence how well you will respond in times of stress. Doing so will also help you to avoid an amygdala-induced overreaction. Interestingly, an amygdala hijack can be stopped by learning how to activate conscious thought, which is achieved through practice and mindfulness.
In many cases of an overactive fight-or-flight response, you can prevent an amygdala hijack by trying one of these techniques listed below. You should also limit your caffeine and alcohol intake, as well as nicotine, as these may all negatively affect the onset of an overactive fight-or-flight response..
The frontal lobe is like the authority figure in your brain. It is responsible for logical and rational thoughts. Unlike the amygdala, where actions are automatic, the frontal lobe is consciously controlled by you. Therefore, you can learn to override an amygdala hijack by using conscious thought from the frontal lobe. But you have to be fast, because the amygdala is always quick to trigger the fight-or-flight response when it feels threatened.
The first step you should take to override an amygdala hijack is to be aware of your emotions and potential stressor(s). Notice how your body responds to stress, whether that is through an elevated heart rate or breathing rhythm. Then, remind yourself that the fight-or-flight response has been activated and calmly tell yourself that this is not the best or most logical way to react. Continue to talk to yourself, as if you were speaking kindly to a friend, until the body begins to calm down.
Mindfulness refers to your ability to be fully present, aware, and able to identify potential triggers that may provoke an amygdala hijack. In other words, mindfulness allows us to not be overwhelmed by what may be happening around us. Ask yourself questions like:
- Are you feeling physically or emotionally threatened?
- Is there a looming deadline or issue that is causing you to feel stressed?
- Are you reacting this way because of something in your environment?
When you feel the symptoms of the fight-or-flight response begin to creep up, take a moment to notice what may have triggered it, and let your frontal lobe (your consciousness) take over. This definitely takes practice and will not come easily for most people. Focus on taking a mental inventory of your thoughts, feelings, and environment every so often. Journaling can be of great help.
Our breathing rate is a telltale sign of how our body is feeling. Use your breaths and breathing rhythm to divert your attention and energy away from your triggers and warning signs. Breathe slowly and purposefully while thinking about maintaining a rhythm.
Related: Learn more about breathing exercises for chronic pain sufferers in our article, Learn How to Breathe Through Your Pain in 4 Steps
Breathing exercises can also slow the heart rate and adrenaline response, which dulls the effects of an amygdala hijack.
Coping refers to your ability to quickly get your emotions under control in situations when you’re unable to prevent an amygdala hijack from occurring. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself in the middle of an amygdala hijack. Here are a few ways to bring your emotions in check:
- Name what is bothering you and verbally say, “I am feeling triggered right now.”
- It takes about 5-6 seconds for the hormones released by the amygdala hijack to disappear in the bloodstream. Use this time to focus on something that is pleasant and calming to avoid triggering the amygdala even further.
- Take a timeout and remove yourself from the scenario/environment/situation.
It’s important to know that some of these recommendations may not be enough, especially when you’re dealing with an abnormal fight-or-flight response. Sometimes, counseling and therapy are necessary to identify underlying triggers that may be contributing to your response. In severe cases, pharmaceutical drugs may be indicated.
Interested in learning more? Look out for Part 3 of our series, which will connect the dots between an abnormal flight-or-flight response and chronic pain patterns.
Written for Fitness Blender by Kayla Covert, PT, DPT
Board-Certified Neurological Clinical Specialist