We battle emotional hijacking when we fly off the handle and let our emotions take the wheel while we take the backseat and fume. When your emotions are in control, you are on autopilot.
It is never a good experience to lose absolute control of our emotions like anger, and fear or even positive emotions like excitement.
At the extreme, emotions have the ability to make us behave irrationally and the result is doing things we won’t have thought of and regret later.
We defy decorum, say words that are not nice, hurt others and we might even hurt ourselves.
The reaction is so exaggerated that when we replay the event later, we pray we can turn back the hands of time.
What actually is emotional hijacking and why does it have so much power to make us hysterical for a few moments?
What is emotional hijacking?
It is the absolute shutdown of cognitive processes in our brain and the kicking in of the irrational brain to take over the motivation of behaviour.
It is usually triggered by sudden, uncontrollable intense feelings that cause us to react instinctively and instantly in ways we might not have done if our thinking was in place.
It simply happens in the absence of rational thinking, leaving the brain to pilot itself to whatever end.
Anyone can be a victim of the seizing of emotions especially those in toxic environments where people are prone to flout protocols and orders.
Hijacking of emotions can also be positive like in surprises. Surprises can cause one to be overwhelmed and display extreme excitement like falling or rushing someone for a hug and he or she loses all decorum.
How did we know about the hijacking of emotions?
Losing emotional grip is not new to humans but was made popular in the last two decades by the renowned author and psychologist, Daniel Goleman in his book, ‘Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ’.
As we can find as we read this post, he points out the psychological activities that take place in the brain to trigger the takeover of our emotions by our blind brain for a few moments.
It was through his work that we became aware and more concerned about how our emotions take a toll on us and how we can handle them to better our course in society.
How are emotions hijacked?
Emotions are hijacked when the centre of emotions in the brain detaches from rational and cognitive processes.
This part of the brain that processes emotions and informs us how to respond is the amygdala in the limbic system.
It is responsible for the relationship between our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors and can be compromised once in a while.
When it is hijacked, we have emotional outbursts that are not in the making of our own thinking.
The outbursts mostly appear spontaneous and hysterical, most times embarrassing.
The amygdala is where emotions are hijacked
The amygdala is one of the most significant parts of the limbic system, the security post of the brain and also the headquarters of passion and scrutiny.
The amygdala is a structure in the temporal lobe of the brain that aids in the perception and regulation of aggression as well as the emotions of fear, sadness, and rage.
It is where emotions are processed and also where emotional hijacking happens.
It controls our fight-or-flight reaction to imminent threats, often known as the acute stress response.
It acts as a “red flag,” and how we respond to it relies on how well we can control our emotions.
In actuality, the amygdala is involved in learning and memory processes and is specialized in the processing of emotional stimulus elements.
It has been shown that when the amygdala and the rest of the brain become disconnected, we are unable to assign emotional meaning to the circumstance, leaving everything to instinct.
For instance, we can see our partners but have no feelings for them. As a result, the amygdala functions as a form of an emotional memory bank.
As a result of that effect, which takes place in a matter of seconds, the prefrontal cortex, an area involved with contemplation, has a rapid reaction, preventing us from pausing to think or taking reasoned action.
All emotional hijackings, of course, have negative implications. For instance, the amygdala also takes over and stops us from thinking when we are subject to an outbreak of uncontrollable laughter or are feeling euphoric.
In actuality, it is not the first time and won’t be the last that someone creates something ridiculous while in a euphoric condition and making empty promises.
The amygdala and passion
Also, the amygdala is important for the development of passions. There is no fear and no fury when this structure is harmed. The victims are unable to even grieve or empathize.
You might be asking yourself at this point, “If the amygdala functions flawlessly, how can we get carried away by passion so easily?”
The issue is that the amygdala also serves as the brain’s guard and one of its tasks is to assess perceptions for signs of danger.
It evaluates each circumstance to determine: Is it something I detest? Could it harm me?
If any of these questions have a “yes” response, the amygdala reacts right away, engaging all the resources and communicating an emergency to the rest of the brain.
Numerous hormones that prompt us to run away or fight are released in response to these messages.
At this point, our muscles tense up, our perceptions sharpen, and we go into alert mode.
Additionally, the memory system is turned on in an effort to recover any data that can help the user avoid that risk.
Thus, the amygdala takes control and practically controls the entire mind, including reasoning, when we potentially confront danger.
Naturally, the amygdala has complete control over our brains since nothing else matters while we are in danger.
As a result, it is the first cerebral station the impulses from our senses pass through before being evaluated before being sent to the prefrontal brain.
Because of this, emotions occasionally override our ability to control them.
Reasons why emotional hijacking occurs?
Our feelings have a way of sneaking up on us. It can happen quickly at work; after being let down by a coworker, you become emotionally hijacked and lash out at them rather than taking the time to express your thoughts quietly.
You probably feel uncomfortable after seeing the astonishment and hurt on your colleague’s face, and you later regret acting impulsively.
Knowing how much time it will take to mend this connection makes you wish you had acted with more common sense.
In order for there to be an amygdala hijacking, it is not enough for the amygdala to be active.
There must also be a breakdown in the neocortical mechanisms that are in charge of regulating our emotional reactions to be activated.
In reality, the prefrontal cortex typically activates to help manage emotions and consider potential solutions when the rational mind is overburdened by the emotional mind.
Negative emotions like fear and anger originate in the right prefrontal cortex, while the left prefrontal lobe holds them at bay by acting as a kind of brain thermostat that helps us to control unpleasant emotions.
The left prefrontal lobe simply shuts down during an emotional seizure, allowing the emotions to run free.
One of the primary issues with this neural alarm system is that it rarely becomes essential for the amygdala to take over the rest of the brain in the modern world where there aren’t any serious threats to our life.
Particularly when you take into account that the amygdala only makes very basic associations with fragments of the past when it is active.
Therefore, if a person has a strong phobia for the sound of a gun, any sound that is close to that phobia can cause an emotional hijacking.
When you consider that many of our memories are from our youth when brain structures like the amygdala and hippocampus were still forming, they were able to store information with excessive emotional charge, and the low accuracy of our emotional brain really becomes much stronger.
At this point, we shouldn’t be surprised if some of our strongest emotional responses are now beyond our comprehension.
After all, they may have been triggered by a childhood event when the world was still too chaotic and we hadn’t even learned how to speak.
Any experience at that time might have been stored as trauma in an immature amygdala, which could later be triggered in circumstances comparable to that one.
Amygdala hijacking in relationships
The ups and downs of relationships make it a good target for emotions to run amok.
Because most relationships are driven by intense emotions, love, sex, jealousy, anxiety, gut feelings, and instincts – they cannot escape the path of amygdala hijackings.
Any time one or two of these emotions take the centre stage, the victim is bound to lose his thinking and fly off the handle.
For example, a man who has been suspicious of his wife or girlfriend can be overwhelmed by jealousy and anger when he finds her with another man and she cannot give a convincing explanation.
It is usually the cause of fights, violence, and even the death of a partner.
Cheating and infidelity are the most dangerous triggers of losing control of emotions in relationships as most people can’t stand the heartbreak and emotional burden that comes with it.
Hijacked emotions in the workplace
Employee emotional hijacking has a negative impact on relationships, productivity, workplace harmony, and efficiency. It also lowers motivation and achievement.
It is simple to lose faith in one’s own abilities or in those of one’s coworkers. Focus is weakened, procrastination starts to take hold, and avoidance behavior starts to feel normal.
It is possible for emotions to surface that actually have no place in a work atmosphere.
You feel exhausted, your frustration levels reach their pinnacle, and you experience extreme annoyance, anger, sadness, or fear.
Many workers, especially senior management, struggle with this problem.
Emotional hijacking examples
Emotional hijacking can happen in almost every area of our lives. It manifests through most of our emotions like fear, anger, jealousy, love etc.
Below are some examples of where the hijacking of emotions wreaks havoc:
- When we suddenly face danger – for instance when we come in contact with a snake, our emotion is hijacked by our brain and we run for our dear lives. This is the flight-or-fight response experienced when our protective instincts kick in.
- It happens with fits of anger. In many anger situations, it is the main culprit. It is characterized by uncontrollable anger that can make a person hit another in delicate places or even use a gun on another.
- Jealousy can make a lover shoot a perceived rival or even his or her partner.
- Emotional hijacking can be experienced with excitement. A person’s emotion is hijacked when he is lost in excitement that he bangs the table or smashes his television.
These are a few examples of emotional hijacking with different emotions. But can losing emotions be controlled? How can we contain this straying behaviour of our psyche?
Can emotional hijacking be prevented?
There are some circumstances where avoiding an emotional hijacking is practically impossible.
That does not, however, imply that we should accept our role as helpless victims of our feelings.
Contrarily, we may educate our brains to distinguish between messages that are genuinely dangerous and those that are safe.
First, understanding that while most everyday circumstances can be unpleasant or frightening, they do not actually pose a threat.
So, there’s no reason to be agitated or upset.
Additionally, it is important to learn detachment since the more things we regard to be a part of our “ego,” the more likely we are to respond when they are in danger.
How to overcome the hijacking of emotions
The good news is that you can learn how to control this loss of control of emotions by teaching your brain to deliberate or have a dialogue before reacting.
Since emotional hijacking is prompt and instant most times, deliberating or even hesitating seconds can alter its effect for the benefit of the individual.
True liberation comes from learning to reframe harmful beliefs and change your thinking, which is made possible by the science of neuroplasticity.
By doing so, we can stop the mental battles we start in our heads.
Here are ways to avoid or overcome the loss of grip on your emotions:
1. Pay attention to details
Attention deficit is a leading cause of emotional hijacking. We are taken by surprise when things we don’t think about happen suddenly.
We should be able to envisage beyond the present occurrences and imagine laterally how situations can change.
In the workplace, family, or where else we interact with people, while we expect good things, we should also expect the worst from people.
By so doing, we can direct our emotions and stop them from hijacking our reactions.
2. Be familiar and aware of your emotions
This is the first step to defeating emotional hijacking. Don’t let anything take you unawares.
Being aware of visualizing that things other than what you expect can happen, you would be well prepared to absorb whatever shock or surprises come with it.
Self-awareness should be a compulsory skill in schools because it will solve half of the problems encountered on the individual level in adulthood.
3. Be emotionally intelligent
Though self-awareness is a component of emotional intelligence, it is not as encompassing as the latter.
Emotional intelligence has more control over how you process, understand, and manage your emotions.
Emotions are very tricky. They are not obtrusive most times but gradually overwhelm us when we are not looking.
Being able to decide how your emotions affect you is the greatest power anyone can wield.
Here is a dedicated article on emotional intelligence.
4. Identify the emotion causing trouble
Sometimes we find it hard to say how we actually feel or what causes our behaviour to be hijacked.
Some emotions can be cloaked under other emotions and we cannot be able to name them.
Being able to call your emotions by name is a good way to have control and avoid emotional hijacking while being rational.
5. Take a deep breath
Deep breaths have soothing effects on the overall body. It gives us more life (oxygen) and strength to face adversities.
Taking a deep breath has a calming effect in a way that makes us become attentive to details.
Before you give that scowling look, first take a deep breath to rethink it. You will find how amazing and effective this simple skill is.
6. Remind yourself that you should be in control
No matter how our emotions are hijacked either too much excitement or anger, it shows one thing….we are not in control. That’s not good.
Losing control means anything can happen. If you constantly remind yourself that your own fate is in your hands, you will avoid complete loss of your emotions
Most people whose emotions are hijacked are helpless and at the mercy of their emotions. In fact, they are slaves to their own emotions.
To actualize this, refer to self-awareness above.
Emotional hijacking might be quick and fleeting, but it is capable of ruining your day and how people perceive you.
Being calm and in control is a priority if you are going to be respected in the home, workplace, or social circles.
Most scenarios that cause emotions to be hijacked can be controlled when we pay more attention to details.
With the steps above, I believe you can now be able to have a firm grip on your emotions and hijack them and not the other way around.
- Emotional Hijacking: What Happens To Your Brain
- Easy Ways To Reduce Emotional Hijacking
- Strategies To Prevent Emotional Hijack At Work
A Personal Development Content Creator and an author. I write about life ethics and love to document and share life hacks and experiences of people to help others make good life decisions.
Every content published on The Conducts Of Life is well-reviewed by our board of experienced professionals in psychology. Contents are fact-checked for accuracy, relevance, and timeliness and we include links to sources at the bottom of every article for more insight.