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 demonstrated all too painfully the night he betrayed Jesus (Luke 22:54-62), this process typically involves sudden, intense emotions that trigger an impulsive reaction that is soon 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 there are four simple steps you can use to defeat this destructive dynamic and to take control of intense emotions. After explaining these steps, I will illustrate them with a video clip based on the incredibly heroic actions of a woman who overcame intense emotions in order to carry out one of the most painful military missions you could ever imagine.
The first step in defeating amygdala hijacking is to realize that the different parts of our brain no longer function as seamlessly as God originally designed them to do. There is both a neurological and a theological aspect to this problem.
When people impulsively say or do harmful 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 obscures 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 is like a filing cabinet that stores our memories of emotional experiences in life and triggers our “flight, fight or freeze” responses to new life experiences.
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, those 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 our amygdala, where emotions are processed, and the neocortex, where our rational thinking, language skills and impulse control are located.
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 emotions and 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?
As all parts of our brain begin to work together, we can pray to God for guidance, draw on past experiences, apply memorized Scripture and relevant sermons and imitate the example of role models as we exercise our will to choose the most constructive way to harness the power of emotions as we speak and act in ways that will honor God, serve those around us and set a good example for others to follow.
It can look like this: “Corlette, I’m sorry for being short with you. That was my pride taking over again; please forgive me. You often see things that I’m missing and have saved me from a lot of mistakes. Please explain again why you think it would be wise for me to …”
Or, “Megan, I know you’re really busy right now, but if you can spare a few minutes, it would be a great help to me if you could assist me with this. Besides, any time I can find an reason work side-by-side with my daughter, my heart is glad!”
Practical Ways to READ Yourself
Although emotional hijacking can be almost instantaneous, the defense mechanisms described above take time and deliberate effort. So what do we do to gain time to fully engage all parts of our brain?
Buy some time. 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 as you go into the conversation 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 will 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 your 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. Practicing READ daily when experiencing mild emotions will turn it into a habit that you practice more easily when facing intense emotions.
A True Example
Here is a short video clip that shows how a courageous woman defeated amygdala hijacking in order to protect others from great harm. The clip is taken from the movie, “We Were Soldiers,” a true story that describes the first large unit battle in the Vietnam war. The U.S. Army was unprepared for the heavy casualties the 7th Cavalry Regiment experienced, so they had to send Yellow Cab drivers to deliver telegrams informing Army wives that their husbands had been killed in action.
In the scene below, the wife of the regiment’s commander, Julie Moore (played by Madeline Stowe), has just learned that cab drivers are delivering these life-shaking telegrams . When she looks out her window and sees a Yellow Cab parked in front of her house, she is gripped by deep fear. She initially experiences the three symptoms of amygdala hijacking: sudden intense emotions that trigger an impulsive reaction that she quickly regrets. But within moments, she defeats the hijacking process as she recognizes her emotions, anticipates the shock that other wives will feel when they see a Yellow cab in front of their homes, and directs her own intense emotions into an astonishingly courageous course of action (click here if a screen does not appear below).
Would you like to learn how to defeat amygdala hijacking and channel the power of your emotions into the same kind of loving service that Julie Moore did? If so, here are three ways to develop these types of relational skills:
- Download the free RW360 Smartphone App so you can review the READ acrostic every day for a month and pray that God would give you grace to practice this simple relational skill so consistently that it would become your automatic response to stressful situations.
- Register for RW360’s online course, Discovering Relational Wisdom 3.0, or invite friends to join you in a group study that will strengthen your ability to respond to relational challenges in a way that honors God and blesses those around you.
- Bring a group of friends to RW360’s annual Sowing Peace Conference, where you can learn how your church can establish a Peace Sower Team that provides ongoing training, coaching and conciliation services to your entire congregation.
I pray that God will use these resources to equip you to take every emotion, thought, word and action captive to Christ!
~ Ken Sande
- 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 your goal with a friend who will pray with and support you.
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. If you wish to adapt the questions to better suit your group, please include a parenthetical note (Questions adapted with permission of RW360) and send a copy to firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2022 Ken Sande
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