The Much-To-Be-Feared Amygdala Hijack


I dare to think that we have all had that morning-after when we wake up, bury our heads in our hands, and wonder out loud:Why did I do that?!?” Dr. Relly Nadler, CEO, True North Leadership, Inc. (2009) identifies that moment that caught us so off guard as an “amygdala hijack”.

What is the amygdala?  Nadler says it’s that little almond-shaped bit of gray matter nested, and well covered, by our cerebral hemisphere. This little lifesaver was created to queue the “fight or flight” reactions designed to save our lives. But, this little jewel has also led more than one person to cause irreparable and irreversible damage to their professional career and personal attachments.

Nadler credits Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, (1995) for coining the phrase “amygdala hijack”. After studying the emotional parts of the human brain using brain imaging and other techniques, Dr. Goleman concluded that the privileged function of our powerful little amygdala is survival. The amygdala acts as our “emotional sentinel” that sounds the alarm when it feels we are threatened. When this happens, the amygdala takes total control of our minds and bodies, the “amygdala hijack”, and keeps us under its control – ready to kill – until it feels we are safe again.  The problem is, however, that the powerful little amygdala operates in our subconscious. This means it cannot truly distinguish between real danger and danger that is “all in our minds”.

Therefore, the powerful little amygdala has been known to distort situations and “blow things way out of proportion”. When this happens, we “flip our lids” and manifest strong emotional responses such as crying, shouting, cursing, choking, hitting, etc., which, in most situations, are inappropriate.

Because of this, both Goleman and Nadler warns we need self-management strategies. These strategies should involve us teaching our rational and thinking prefrontal lobes, (“the lids“),  to take charge when our little amygdala attacks and keep that amygdala in check before it sends us “off the deep end” in a room crowded with people (Goleman, 1995. Nadler, 2009).

So. What should we do when we get to the point we are “losing controlof ourselves? Nadler recommends we conduct an “emotional audit” at the onset of an attempted amygdala hijack. Nadler advises, we begin by asking ourselves five key questions:

  1. What am I thinking? Firmly force yourself to begin thinking about what is going on and what do you have to lose in this situation.
  2. What am I feeling? Think out what you have to lose and decide if it is important enough that you need to keep it.
  3. What do I want? Try to identify one goal that would help you determine that you were able to keep what you needed.
  4. What am I not doing? Determine what you are saying or doing that could cause you to lose what you need or accomplishing that one goal.
  5. What actions do I need to take or words should I say? Determine the appropriate actions and words required to leave that situation or person with no harm no foul (Nadler, 2009)

I call this Plan A: Amygdala Negotiations.  Sounds good, huh?  Challenge is – if you are like me – we want blood first. Ask questions later.

When I feel that I cannot negotiate myself out of becoming angry, I shut my mouth.  It’s time to quickly resort to Plan B: Communications.   I then take several deep breaths. Charles Spielberger and Jerry Deffenbacker advise taking several deep breaths expands our diaphragms. This automatically begins the relaxation process, especially if we chant “relax” or “take it easy” inaudibly to ourselves (Spielberger & Deffenbacker, 1995).  Once I feel myself calming down, before uttering another word, I pledge to myself that I will not say those dangerous relationship-killers: “never”, “always” and “you”.

Now. I should be calm enough to begin clearly communicating how I feel and firmly stating my goal or expected outcomes. If I am still feeling a little hot, I try interjecting a little self-depreciating humor to soften the atmosphere and set the stage for productive conversation. I make a conscious effort to ask the other person/people what they expect or want and truly try to listen to their responses (Spielberger & Deffenbacher).

But, after trying  Plan B, if my amygdala is still thumping, is time for Plan C: Escape. Still feeling the need to escape after I have expressed myself calmly is a sure sign that my amygdala is right and that I need to get away from that person or situation as fast as possible (Spielberger & Deffenbacher). In such situations, I do not consider escape as defeat. I consider it as my winning strategy for living to fight another day.

However, even in retreat, if it is a non-life-threatening situation, I always consider just letting it go. I ask my powerful little amygdala, “So what if … ”  If it cannot come back with a valid argument – I simply decide to just get over it and move on.

One thing I try to remember while under duress in any situation is this excerpt from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Usually, I end up realizing that all is well with my soul.


Goleman, D. Emotional Intelligence: Why It can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.

Nadler, R. (2009). What Was I Thinking? Handling the Hijack. Retrieved from

Spielberger,, C., & Deffenbacher, J. (2011, October). Strategies for controlling your anger. Retrieved from

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