Four Ways to Defeat Amygdala Hijacking

by | May 19, 2014

The apostle Peter’s denial of Christ is a classic example of a neurological/emotional failure that today is commonly referred to as “amygdala hijacking.”  As Peter demonstrates all too painfully in Luke 22:54-62, this process typically involves sudden, intense emotions that trigger an impulsive reaction that is later regretted. Most of us have experienced these types of impulsive reactions in our marriages or with our children, coworkers or fellow church members.

The good news is that the Bible also describes four simple steps you can follow to avoid this destructive dynamic and to take control of even the most intense emotions.

Before we consider these steps, let me illustrate the behavioral signs of hijacking with a short clip from the movie, Cinderella Man, which is based on the true story of a champion boxer named James Braddock. In this scene, James’ wife, Mae, is struggling with a deep fear that her husband is going to be killed in an upcoming boxing match. Watch how Mae’s emotions build and then suddenly overpower her in a scene to which you can probably relate: Cinderella Man – “I Need You!”

Mae’s outburst at her children demonstrates the three classic signs of amygdala hijacking: sudden strong emotions that trigger an impulsive reaction that is soon regretted.

Part of this dynamic can be traced to tensions between different parts of the brain, which no longer function as seamlessly as God originally designed them. As we will see, there is both a neurological and a theological aspect to this problem.

Sin-Damaged Brains

When people impulsively say or do harmfully things, Christians typically explain their actions by saying, “They sinned.”

That may be true, but painting with such a broad  and simplistic brush robs us of a full understanding of the problem and an effective plan of action.

Sin is definitely central to harmful words and actions, but its impact is far more nuanced than most of us realize.

At creation, God made us in his image (Gen. 1:26). Among other things, this means he designed our minds to function perfectly in every situation, no matter what kind of stress we might be feeling. The limbic part of our brain, where emotions and motivations are centered, was designed to work in perfect harmony with our neocortex, where language skills, impulse control, rational thinking and decision making takes place.

But sin threw this beautifully designed system out of whack. Because of the fall, sin has corrupted our whole being, including our thoughts, emotions and will (sometimes called the “noetic effects of sin”). As a result,  emotions, desires and passions can get so intense that they move us to say and do things that offend God and damage relationships (see James 4:1-3; Rom. 7:18-19). As Proverbs 12:16 warns, “The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult.”

The Bible contains multiple examples of such hijacking, including Peter’s three-fold denial of Christ (Luke 22:54-62), Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery (Gen. 37:11, 27-28), Moses striking the rock at Meribah (Nu. 20:10-13); David’s giving himself over to lust and murder (2 Sam. 11:1-17; 2 Sam. 12:11-15), and James’ and John’s offer to call down fire on a Samaritan village (Luke 9:51-55).

A Matter of Nanoseconds

Part of what goes wrong in these situations (and this is only one part) has to do with the wiring of our brains, which no longer works as perfectly as God initially designed it. Instead of meshing smoothly, the various parts of our brain sometimes get out of synch.  Here’s one way this happens …

Data from our senses (eyes, ears, touch, etc.) enters the brain through the thalamus, which relays impulses to other parts of the brain, including the amygdala, which acts as an experiential/emotional filing cabinet. Due to small differences in the distances to be traveled, impulses arrive at the amygdala a few nanoseconds before they get to the neocortex. If the sensory data triggers an intense emotional memory in the amygdala, our emotions can trigger an impulsive reaction, essentially hijacking our mouth or body, before we are able to rationally process the information.

Simple illustration. Because of a frightening experience in her youth, my wife is terrified of snakes.  So if we were walking along  the top of a high mountain cliff and she saw a small garter snake beside the trail, she would probably scream and leap ten feet out into thin air before her neocortex reminded her that she can’t fly. But by then it’s too late.

People who have experienced especially painful events, such as failing in school, receiving a demeaning job performance review, seeing their parents divorce or, worst of all, being emotionally, physically or sexually abused are vulnerable to similar impulsive reactions.

Competition in the Brain

That’s just the beginning of our challenges. Using functional neuroimaging, a team of neuroscientists led by Matthew Lieberman discovered another competing relationship between the amygdala (a central part of the limbic system) and the neocortex. Picture1 - Copy

They found that when the amygdala is highly stimulated with intense emotions, it utilizes more blood and oxygen than normal, leaving less of both for the neocortex. This deficit causes a corresponding decrease in our capacity for reasoning, problem solving, and impulse control. This can lead to a temporary loss of 10 to 15 IQ points!

Yes, you really do get dumber when you’re highly emotional.

So when someone asks, “What were you thinking?” after an emotional outburst, part of your answer can be, “I was thinking with a lot less brain power than I normally have at my disposal.”

Practical Defenses Against Hijacking

Realizing that emotional hijacking makes it difficult to think clearly, our ministry has developed several simple acrostics to make it easier for you to practice relational skills that enable you to manage your words and actions wisely in stressful situations.

One of these acrostics is set forth in this principle: “To become more self-aware and self-engaging, READ yourself accurately.” This acrostic summarizes four key steps that can help you resist hijacking:

  • Recognize your emotions and name them
  • Evaluate their source
  • Anticipate the consequences of following them
  • Direct them on a constructive course

Recognize – What am I feeling?

Neuroimaging as well as practical experience have shown that labeling emotions can help to reduce their intensity and shift more of their management back to the prefrontal cortex.

For example, in a study conducted by Dr. Lieberman, when people attached a word like “angry” to an angry-looking face, neuro-activity in the amygdala, which processes fear, panic and other strong emotions, decreased significantly. This dampening effect was accompanied by a corresponding increase of activity in the neocortex, because that’s where our language skills are located. Therefore, in order to find a word to label an emotion, we have to access our neocortex, which simultaneously stimulates our impulse control. When this happens, the amygdala and neocortex start to work together, just as God designed them to do.

Recognizing and labeling emotions also helps us to pull them out of the shadows and identify those that pose risks to our relationships. Just as pneumonia is a more dangerous illness than a common cold, bitterness is more dangerous than disappointment, self-pity can lead to more problems than sadness, and fear can be more crippling than concern.

So it is important to practice looking into our own hearts and accurately applying labels such as sad, discouraged, depressed, angry, lonely, embarrassed, rejected, bitter, jealous, and self-pity, to name a few.

If you’re not used to doing this, a way to practice identifying emotions is to read a novel or watch a movie and constantly ask yourself, “What is that character feeling?” As you get better at reading emotions in others, you’ll get better at reading them in yourself.

Evaluate – Why am I feeling this emotion?

The next step is to ask yourself, “Why am I feeling this way?” Asking these kinds of questions helps to move your thought process from the amygdala to the neocortex.

When I’m attempting to override a hijacking, I actually visualize grabbing my thoughts with both hands and dragging them from the back of my brain to the front of my brain, where my prefrontal cortex (and reasoning capacity) is located.

That’s also where all my sermon applications, memorized Scriptures, and lessons learned the hard way are stored, which is exactly what I need to draw on in order to defeat emotional hijacking.

More importantly, asking yourself why you’re feeling certain emotions helps to identify the circumstances and desires that are driving them, which is a crucial step toward controlling them (see James 4:1-3; Matt. 15:18).

The process looks like this: “I’m feeling angry. Why? Because Corlette just questioned my judgment. Why does that bother me so much? Because I’m proud and want her unqualified trust, respect, and support. Why else? Because I’m busy and I’m lazy and don’t want to spend more time explaining myself to her.”

Or, “What am I feeling? Self-pity. Why? Because I work my tail off for my family and make all sorts of sacrifices for them. And here when I needed just a little bit of support from them, they say they’re too busy. It’s just not fair. Really? So why have you been serving them all along, to put them in your debt?” Ouch!

As we dig into the depths of our own hearts in the middle of intense emotional times, we will often find that God is using the situation to free us from the grip of sinful desires and passions that have become controlling “idols.” (For more guidance on overcoming desires and emotions that seek to rule your life, see Getting to the Heart of Conflict.)

Anticipate – What are the likely consequences if I give in to this emotion?

Here again we are making a conscious effort to move our brain activity from the emotional zone to the reasoning zone. We draw on memories, experience, and learning by asking, “What is likely to happen if I give in to these emotions?”

It looks like this: “If I give into my anger, I’ll become defensive and say harsh things to Corlette, which will make her feel guilty and disrespected, and reluctant to voice questions or concerns in the future, which would not only hurt her but also undermine our ability to work as a team.”

Or, “If I give into self-pity, I’ll withdraw from my family and give them the cold shoulder. I’d like to label that as a defense mechanism, but the hard truth is that it’s simply a way to punish and manipulate them for not treating me the way I want. That will only build walls and distrust between us.”

“But worst of all, these reactions will offend my loving God who sent his Son to free me from these very sins.”

You’ll find equally uncomfortable but course-changing mental conversations when the emotions in question are bitterness, envy, jealously, depression, or hopelessness.

Direct – How can I channel my emotions onto a constructive course?

Although emotional hijacking can be almost instantaneous, these defense mechanisms take time. So what do we do to gain this time?

Buy some time. As I mentioned last week, one of the simplest anti-hijacking techniques is to always have a bottle of water or cup of coffee in front of you in any meetings or conversations that could become emotionally volatile. Make a firm resolution that you will not respond to an irritating or offensive comment without first taking a sip of water or coffee. The six seconds it takes to do so will usually give your neocortex time to catch up with your amygdala.

Another way to buy some time is to simply ask for it. “You know, this is really important to both of us, so I’d like to take a few minutes to walk around the block and think about our options.” Or, more simply, “We’ve been talking quite a while, and I need to take a bathroom break.”

Oxygenate. Slow down the conversation and breathe deeply. In emotional situations your brain is working intensely and using up a lot of oxygen. Be deliberate in replacing it. Your mother probably never heard of neuroimaging, but somehow she knew that counting to ten was always a good thing.

Rejoice in the Lord … and remember that he is near. This is a discipline the apostle Paul urged the Philippians to practice when they were wresting with a conflict: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand” (Phil. 4:4-5). It’s difficult to have two strong emotional experiences simultaneously, so rejoicing in God—remembering his character, works, and promises—is an excellent way to counteract strong negative feelings about another person.

Pray. Paul goes on in Philippians to teach, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6). In addition to appropriating God’s grace, prayer moves your thoughts off of what is provoking you and centers them on God himself … which should put worldly issues in a clearer context.

Be thankful. Since it’s difficult to entertain competing emotional experiences at the same time, being thankful is another way to counter a hijack (see Phil. 4:6). While it’s especially effective to be thankful for the person you’re talking with, other kinds of thankfulness can be helpful … whether it’s thankfulness to God for his many kindnesses to you, or thankfulness for other people he’s placed in your life. As Paul told the Philippians:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things … and the God of peace will be with you (Phil. 4:8-9).

Do a 180. If you realize that our emotions are trying to lead you in a direction that is contrary to the love and character of Christ, ask him for grace to “do a 180,” that is, to do exactly the opposite of what you feel like doing (Luke 6:27-36; Rom. 12:20-21; see this blog for more specific guidance).

Learn from your mistakes. If you are hijacked, get a benefit from it. After your emotions cool, spend some time reflecting on what happened and why. Identifying the trigger for that event can help you be better prepared when you face a similar situation in the future.

There are no panaceas. Since we live in a fallen world, we will always be faced with the challenge of mastering our imperfect minds and emotions. But if you practice the spiritual principles that are summarized in the READ principle, you can steadily improve your ability to head hijacking off at the pass, and channel the power of your emotions into constructive words and actions.

This truth is beautifully illustrated in another clip from Cinderella Man, after Mae has spent time doing the kinds of things described above (in real life, Mae Braddock was a devote Christian). Watch what happens when she uses all of her mental and emotional gifts to overcome deep fear (the the life-threatening fight is now just minutes away!) and encourage her husband before he heads into the ring (click here if a screen does not appear below).


What an excellent illustration of the simple but life-changing relational wisdom summarized in Philippians 4:4-7:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

– Ken Sande Reflection Questions

  • Think of a time when you were emotionally hijacked? What triggered your intense feelings? What did they cause you to do? What was the result?
  • Describe how that situation might have unfolded if you had practiced four steps in the READ principle.
  • Which of the READ disciplines will you focus on developing in the next thirty days? Share our goal with a friend who will pray with and support you.
  • One of the best ways to improve your ability to READ yourself is to go through our online course, Discovering Relational Wisdom 3.0, which you can study individually or with a group, using your computer, smart phone or tablet.

Permission to distribute: Please feel free to download, print, or electronically share this message in its entirety for non-commercial purposes with as many people as you like. © 2014 Ken Sande Get this from a friend? Subscribe now!

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