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July 03, 2023

Amygdala Hijack: Irrational Physical Reactions

Have you ever woken up panting, sweating and screaming in the middle of the night after having a nightmare? Have you ever jumped into an unnecessary fist fight with somebody who wasn’t hostile towards you at all? Have you ever got scared and ran away from somebody who wasn’t frightening you purposefully? From suddenly bursting into screams while sleeping with closed eyes to shouting, frowning, clenching fists and pointing fingers at each other in traffic, we the so-called rational animals behave and react irrationally at multiple occasions throughout our lives.

Although we’re only watching a terrifying dream just like we watch a picture or movie, we react as if we’re physically involved in a terrifying outcome at the very moment. On the other hand, shouting, frowning, clenching fists and pointing fingers at each other isn’t going to achieve anything but we react as if we’re preparing ourselves and challenging other riders, drivers or passengers for a close combat. In the worst case, such reactions from two sides can eventually turn a busy city street into a small battle ground for a violent physical fight between two insanely aggressive animals.

Most of such irrational and instinctive physical reactions lead to troubles, injuries, accidents and causalities only. Only upon realizing on our own or making to realize by somebody after a few moments, we feel as if we were hijacked and we reacted without any rational and conscious control on our whole body. We instantaneously react as if we’re controlled by some ghost, daemon or evil spirit which is pulling all strings of a brainless puppet. So what exactly turns an educated, thinking, rational, normal and civil looking individual into a wild and raging beast?

Road rages are on rise. Beware!

What exactly drives us wild just for a few moments is not any ghost, daemon or evil spirit but a very small part sitting deep inside our brain behind such irrational reactions. This part is called as Amygdala which is a central part of the limbic system (paleomammalian cortex) that initiates basic behavioral responses and different emotions in humans and mammals. Using the signals coming through different sensory organs, vigilant Amygdala constantly scans for the whole surrounding environment for cues, signs, hints and indications of risks, dangers and challenges to survival.

It’s almost impossible to sit inside a time-machine and travel back into the Earth’s remote past in which dangerous wild creatures were roaming freely on the face of the planet. However, just try to imagine yourself walking through a tall grass and you suddenly stumble upon a saber tooth tiger which is waiting in ambush. Only way to survive is either to start running away from it as faster as you can even without looking back at the predator until reaching at a safe distance. Your whole body needs to react without wasting time in rational thinking and detailed analysis.

Dr. Daniel Goleman
This ancient system has greatly helped us in surviving the life-threatening situations and creatures over the millions of years. However, it’s turning us into wild beasts in today’s world which is almost free from the same situations and creatures. Only after doing enough damage to us or others, we end up in regretting or apologizing about what we’ve done instantaneously. This short-lasting neural phenomenon is called as ‘Amygdala Hijack’, as mentioned by Dr. Daniel Goleman is his famous book ‘Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ’.

Out of four distinct behavioral responses and seven basic emotions, both Anger (Fight) and Fear (Flight) responses can be extremely damaging in today’s world especially if they get intensified to an unnecessary proportion just within fractions of a second. These two responses can prove extremely damaging to career, health, relations, well-being and even longevity. Daily newspapers and news channels unmistakably report the news of crimes, abuses and offenses which are committed by very normal individuals which get hijacked by Amygdala.

How exactly the so-called ‘Amygdala Hijack’ takes place inside the human brain? Let’s try to understand the same briefly. Inside our large brains, signals gathered by any sensory organ go to Thalamus first. Some part of sensory signals is sent to Amygdala and the remaining part of it is sent to Neocortex and more specifically the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) which is the thinking part of human brain. Neocortex takes comparatively more time than Amygdala in patiently analyzing the incoming sensory signals before initiating an appropriate response.

On the other hand, Amygdala is much quicker in reacting to incoming sensory signals just like a hyperactive Chihuahua which barks at every stranger coming through main gate of a house. Amygdala rapidly searches for memories of experiences inside Hippocampus (emotional memory bank). If sensory signals are found to be associated with any negative memories then a defensive response is activated. Amygdala takes less than a second to do the same, similar to an experienced sniper who doesn’t miss to hit its target in sight.

Two different paths of sensory signals

Especially if an individual is already stressed, had a bad start of the day, underwent traumatic experiences or has enlarged Amygdala then the individual is more likely to react instantaneously in self-defense than responding constructively, thoughtfully, peacefully, rationally, patiently or logically. As we experience it routinely, even a few abnormal words coming out from mouth of a familiar and caring individual can unmistakably kick-start the Amygdala Hijack in already troubled individuals.

A considerable percentage of modern population appears stressed without any apparent challenges, threats and dangers in the sight because the brain unmistakably releases cortisol and adrenaline into bloodstream to prepare the whole body to either fight with or run away from the individuals or situations that threaten us. Even if we partially or fully succeed in suppressing limbic impulse consciously under social pressure, secreted stress hormones don’t quickly go away.

Amygdala Hijack doesn’t at all miss to give clear warning signs through sudden change in body language. Due to secretion of cortisol and adrenaline hormones, breathing rate shoots up with breathing location shifting from belly to chest. Eyes become widely open. Fists are clenched. Skeletal muscles are flexed. Nostrils are flared. Eyebrows are pulled downwards and pulled inside. Under the tight grip of rage, glaring without blinking or batting the eyelids can be observed.

Today’s modern world is vastly connected yet became more complicated than ever before. Learning about various disturbing incidents occurring in different parts of the globe contributes in building stress, terror, tension, despair anguish, insecurity, discomfort and apprehension. It increases the possibility of Amygdala Hijack in future. While living in small and geographically isolated clans, our primitive ancestors never faced this unprecedented situation.

Amygdala Hijack doesn’t need to happen only while facing life-threatening situations, circumstances and challenges. A few wrong, abusive, ridiculing, unexpected and inappropriate words uttered during normal interactions and conversations are enough to trigger Amygdala Hijack in stressed, troubled, traumatized, sociopathic, endangered, intoxicated and serotonin-deprived individuals. Heated verbal exchange can quickly turn into nonverbal violence.

[#Critically Important: Empathy, laughter, meditation, spirituality, acceptance, visualization, conditioning, compassion, mindfulness, introspection, physical workout and breathing exercise (Yoga/Praanaayaam) greatly help in minimizing or avoiding Amygdala Hijack or irrational and uncontrolled reactions during many interactions, encounters, incidents and situations.

Also, good sleep, good nutrition, happy childhood, warm parenting, emotional support, stronger relations, promising environment, positive social interactions and deep knowledge about human body silently motivate people not to react to each and every sensory signals unnecessarily.]

Related Articles:
1) Fear Factor 2) Basic body responses in stressful situations 3) Body Language Brain 4) Turtle Effect: Body response under threat 5) Surprise vs Startle Reflex 6) Body Language in Depression 7) Body Language of Extreme Narcissist 8) Body Language of Extreme Psychopath 9) Chicken and Egg Paradox 10) Body Language under Stress

1 comment:

  1. Hello Sir, I went through the article. It's really helpful to understand how do we as a human behave in particular situation and how to control our behaviour. Thanks for sharing! 👍🏻


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