Have you ever experienced an immediate and overwhelming emotional response? As if a swarm of angry bees suddenly possessed your mind? Your heart rate accelerated as your body entered fight or flight mode? You called five friends to describe in detail the atrocity that occurred, later realizing that your reaction was disproportionate from the actual trigger? If so, then you have experienced an Amygdala Hijack.
Before I learned this terminology, I heard people in the rooms of AA say, “when you’re hysterical, it’s historical.” It took a while for this concept to sink in, but I knew right away that this applied to me regularly.
A few years into my sobriety, life got pretty good and yet I was often a wreck. Seemingly small incidents would set off my internal alarm system, and I would freak out. After a few hours, the overwhelming emotions would subside, and I would have to go and clean up the mess I made by overreacting. I got sick and tired of saying sorry. Around six years ago, I learned about an Amygdala hijack. Learning the science behind “when you’re hysterical, it’s historical” changed my life. Here it is:
The good news is that there are actions that you can take to diffuse this unbearable emotional state more quickly. Awareness is always the first step in creating change. Increasing your emotional intelligence will help you identify when you are in a hijack. Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman is an essential book on this topic. Here it is:
Make a list on the notepad in your phone identifying your biggest triggers. Becoming familiar with your trigger list will immediately depersonalize the situation. Awareness does not prevent the storm from happening, but it will stop it from turning into a category 5 one. Once you realize that you are in the grips of a hijack, don’t react directly; focus on breathing and count backward in your head, starting at ten and repeating as necessary.
The sensation to release the upset feeling is powerful, and resisting the urge to share is the best tactic. If you cannot do this or need confirmation that you are in a hijack, speak to one safe person. Be mindful, that the more you tell the story, the stronger the swarm becomes. I sometimes ask my husband to support me, “I am starting to lose it, can you listen to me for a few minutes?” As soon as he confirms that my reaction is over the top, I stop talking. Another tool I learned in AA and utilize when triggered is restraint of pen, tongue, and email. Until the swarm is gone, it’s too risky for me to address the situation. An Amygdala hijack passes, and with older triggers, it can take an hour or two. The less time you spend giving it life, the quicker it will move through you.
My Amygdala was hijacked a few days ago. I haven’t experienced one for a while, and it was uncomfortable. I was caught up in a frenzy after a seemingly benign text message. Daniel listened to me patiently for ten minutes until I experienced a pattern recognition aha moment. One of my biggest triggers was activated – when I perceive someone has been dishonest by omission for personal gain. Sneakiness gets me every time, wiring back to a pattern in my family of origin. When I realized what was happening, I put my phone away in a drawer in my bedroom because I was tempted to respond. I counted backward as I paced around the apartment.
Walking is a great way to break up and redistribute negative energy- see my post below:
I continued to kick the disturbance out of my mind every time it popped up and my heart rate finally normalized. I had done no external damage, so no apologies needed. I thanked Daniel and picked up a book.
That’s a win with an Amygdala hijack.