EMOTIONAL HIJACKING: EMOTIONS OVERPOWERING COGNITION
A 32-year-old man, is already 30 minutes late for his meeting because of getting stuck in heavy traffic jam. A person named Raj is driving another car behind him keeps honking and tells him to keep moving. Suddenly he gets out of his car and goes toward Raj, abuses him and punches him. People nearby gather around and try to take control of the situation. After a while, he looks around feeling embarrassed and regretting his actions telling himself “I don’t know what has gotten into me and I did not mean to do it”. He believed that his actions were not under his control and that he overreacted aggressively because he was under stress. People may have experienced or observed similar incidences on Indian roads.
Many a time people become so aggressive that they do not respond in their usual way. Some common examples include slamming doors, breaking things, shouting, abusing and having outbursts that create an unpleasant and toxic environment. People tend to have a short-term memory of such episodes, which results in regret and disappointments about their undesired behaviour. Loss of control over emotions often creates distress amongst relationships and results in a stressful environment. Those who are more vulnerable to emotional hijacking, tend to behave and express their emotions through impulsive deliberations.
Daniel Goleman in 1996 coined the term “Amygdala Hijacking” for the first time in his book Emotional intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ. According to him, overreacting on emotion is known as “Emotional hijacking” or “Amygdala hijacking”.
Emotional Hijacking occurs when the primitive part of the emotional brain known as ‘amygdala’ hijacks the rational part of the brain known as the ‘neocortex’. Information from the outside world directly goes to the thalamus that sends direct signals to amygdala to perceive the situation as threatening or non-threatening. The amygdala plays a major role in controlling of the sympathetic nervous system and preparing us for a fight, flight or freezing response. When the threatening or stress giving situation is perceived, neurons of the emotional brain start firing milliseconds earlier than that of rational brain, thus hijacking all the areas of the brain and controlling behaviour. By the time people consciously become aware of the surrounding, the process of outburst had already created unwanted damage.
The explosion may be identified as the sudden onset of outburst that may include an episode of aggression, fear, obsession, self-harm or others harm. The action is sudden and lasts for about few seconds. After this course of action, one is left with nothing but regret!
Now, the question is ‘WHAT TO DO WHEN EMOTIONAL HIJACKING TAKES PLACE?’
Psychologists believe that developing Emotional Intelligence may help in dealing with emotional hijacks.The best way is to be aware of our emotions and manage it systematically. When realizing a ‘hijack’ is about to occur, it is better to move away from the place of the trigger or snapping out of that situation for a while. Then, it is recommended that one starts relaxing their tensed muscles. This is the best way to normalize bodily changes. This can be done by practising deep breathing muscle relaxation exercise. Taking in a breath slowly and gradually, holding it for 5 sec and then slowly exhaling it.
In succession, naming the emotion can be done by calling out aloud, for example- “I am angry”, “I am sad” or “I am hurt”. This will help to force our rational brain to take appropriate action over the activity of the emotional brain.
Once the body is under control, asking oneself about what caused this emotion and why this situation caused it could help in rationalizing and justifying the emotions that were experienced. For the latter, one may also identify and document situations that triggered these outbursts and identify alternative actions that can be taken if similar situations arise again. This may be most useful for people who are victims of emotional hijacking.