What Is Emotional Hijacking? Why It Occurs And How To Prevent It

Last updated on February 5th, 2024 at 11:04 am

Discover the causes of emotional hijacking, its impact, and strategies for prevention. Learn how to manage intense emotional responses effectively.

You battle the hijacking of emotions when you fly off the handle and let your emotions take the wheel while you 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 your emotions like anger, and fear or even positive emotions like excitement.

At the extreme, emotions can make you behave irrationally and the result is doing things you don’t intend and you might regret later.

You could defy decorum, say words that are not nice, hurt others and might even hurt yourself in the process.

What is emotional hijacking and why does it have so much power to make us hysterical for a few moments?

Table of Contents

What is emotional hijacking?

A woman who is visibly angry showing emotional hijacking

Emotional hijacking definition

Emotional hijacking 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.

Related: How to regulate emotions with emotional awareness

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?

A man comes hard for his wife in a show of emotional hijacking

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.

Related: Powerful Emotions Applied in Persuasion

The Relationship between amygdala and emotional hijacking

The amygdala, a key part of the limbic system, regulates emotions like fear and aggression and triggers the fight-or-flight response.

It processes emotional stimuli and can cause emotional hijacking, influencing your responses to situations.

When disconnected from the rest of the brain, it hampers your ability to assign emotional meaning to circumstances, leading to instinctive reactions.

This can prevent the prefrontal cortex, responsible for rational thought, from intervening.

While the amygdala’s role in emotional memory is crucial, its influence can also lead to uncontrollable emotional responses, impacting our ability to think and act rationally.

Also Read: How do I know if I am An introvert? 17 Sure Signs

The amygdala and passion

Over-excitement, and example of amygdala hijack

The amygdala is crucial for passion development and threat assessment.

When it perceives danger, it triggers immediate physical and cognitive responses, releasing hormones for fight-or-flight reactions.

This can override rational thought, as the amygdala takes control to ensure survival.

It acts as the brain’s guard, evaluating circumstances for potential harm and engaging the entire mind in emergency response.

This process can lead to overpowering emotions, hindering our ability to control them.

When the amygdala functions flawlessly, it prompts rapid and intense reactions to perceived threats, demonstrating its dominance over cognitive processes during moments of danger.

Additionally, the amygdala’s involvement in evaluating perceptions for signs of danger and engaging the entire mind in emergency response can contribute to the intensity of passionate emotions.

Therefore, the amygdala is closely linked to the experience and expression of passion.

Also Read: How To Master Your Sense Of Agency And Sensory Intelligence

Why does emotional hijacking occur?

The passage describes how unchecked emotions can lead to impulsive actions and the neurological basis for emotional hijacking.

It explains how the amygdala and prefrontal cortex interact, leading to emotional outbursts and irrational behavior.

The text highlights the impact of early experiences on emotional responses and the lingering influence of childhood trauma on adult reactions.

It emphasizes the importance of understanding these processes to gain control over emotional reactions and make more reasoned choices in challenging situations.

Related: How to use emotions for influence

Emotional hijacking in relationships

A lady screams unconsciously in demonstration of emotional hijacking

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, intimacy, 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, you are bound to lose your 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.

Related: How emotions shape thoughts and behaviours

Emotional hijacking in the workplace

Employee emotional hijacking hurts relationships, productivity, workplace harmony, and efficiency. It also lowers motivation and achievement.

It is simple to lose faith in one’s abilities or those of one’s coworkers. Focus is weakened, procrastination starts to take hold, and avoidance behaviour starts to feel normal.

Emotions can surface that 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.

Check out tips on how to manage emotions in the workplace.

Emotional hijacking examples

A lady fumes in anger and terror as her emotion is hijacked by anger

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 so 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?

Related: How emotional mastery can change your life

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 genuinely dangerous messages and those that are safe.

First, understanding that while most everyday circumstances can be unpleasant or frightening, they do not 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 Prevent Emotional Hijacking

Preventing emotional hijacking involves various strategies:

1. Mindfulness: Practicing mindfulness helps individuals stay present and aware of their emotions, allowing them to respond thoughtfully rather than react impulsively.

2. Self-awareness: Recognizing early signs of emotional arousal, such as increased heart rate or tension, enables individuals to intervene before emotions escalate.

3. Relaxation techniques: Deep breathing, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation can help manage intense emotions and prevent emotional hijacking.

4. Reframing thoughts: Challenging negative interpretations and replacing them with more balanced perspectives can reduce emotional reactivity and prevent hijacking.

How to overcome emotional hijacking

A depiction of what happens when you lose emotional control

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.

Giving yourself time to reflect, and developing your emotional intelligence through self-awareness, self-management, social consciousness, and relationship management.

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 hijack. 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 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 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 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. They are slaves to their own emotions.

To actualize this, refer to self-awareness above.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is emotional hijacking and why does it happen?

Also called amygdala hijacking, it is an intense, overwhelming emotional response triggered by the amygdala, often in response to perceived threats or strong stimuli.

How do I stop emotional hijack?

To stop the hijacking of emotions, practice mindfulness, recognize early signs of emotional arousal, and employ relaxation techniques to regain emotional control.

How do you think you can use the four steps mentioned to prevent an emotional hijack?

Using the four steps involves recognizing emotional triggers, practicing self-awareness, employing relaxation techniques, and reframing thoughts to prevent the hijack of emotions.

What are the common triggers for emotional hijacking?

Common triggers include perceived threats, intense stress, fear, anger, and overwhelming stimuli that activate the brain’s emotional response.

How can emotional hijacking impact personal and professional relationships?

It can strain relationships by causing impulsive reactions, misunderstandings, and emotional volatility, leading to conflict and communication breakdowns.

What strategies can be used to regain control during an emotional hijacking episode?

Strategies to regain control during amygdala hijacking include mindfulness, deep breathing, self-awareness, and reframing thoughts to manage intense emotions effectively.


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.


  1. Emotional Hijacking: What Happens To Your Brain
  2. Easy Ways To Reduce Emotional Hijacking
  3. Strategies To Prevent Emotional Hijack At Work

Pious Clements is the insightful voice behind "The Conducts of Life" blog, where he writes about life ethics, self-development, life mastery, and the dynamics of people and society.

With a profound understanding of human behaviuor and societal dynamics, Pious offers thought-provoking perspectives on ethical living and personal growth.
Through engaging narratives and astute observations, he inspires readers to navigate life's complexities with wisdom and integrity, encouraging a deeper understanding of the human experience and our place within society.