Have your emotions been hijacked?

Do you ever come down from an emotional outburst and think to yourself, “What was that about?  Why did I just do that?”  If that rings a bell with you, you are not alone.

Let’s get technical for a minute.  There is a place in your brain called the amygdala. Research tells us that it’s primary function is emotional reactions and it trains by memorizing emotions connected with certain stimuli.  Most often it is fear conditioning. If the amygdala perceives a match to the stimulus as a fight, flight or freeze situation, it triggers the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis and hijacks the rational brain.  Ok, of all of that, just remember it hijacks the rational brain, so if you see someone that appears to have jumped off the deep end, it may not have been totally voluntary.

The amygdala hijack was described by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence:  Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.  They are the “Emotional responses from people which are immediate and overwhelming and out of measure with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat.”  Goleman states, “Emotions make us pay attention right now – this is urgent – and gives us an immediate action plan without having to think twice. The emotional component evolved very early:  Do I eat it, or does it eat me?”   The emotional response “can take over the rest of the brain in a millisecond if threatened.”

So how do you handle it when your spouse, child, parent, coworker, friend, neighbor, teacher, student, etc., etc. is in the throes of an amygdala hijack?  “Self-control is crucial,” states Goleman. Avoid a complementary hijacking. “One key marital competence is for partners to learn to soothe their own distressed feelings … nothing gets resolved positively when husband or wife is in the midst of an emotional hijacking … when our partner becomes, in effect, our enemy.”

At preschool, parents often become entrenched in making sure that their little one is receiving enough academics to try to push them ahead of others. At the same time, many subscribe to a narrow view of intelligence, arguing that IQ is predisposed by genetics that cannot be changed. One’s destiny in life, they believe, is largely fixed based upon these aptitudes.

“What can we change that will help our children fare better in life?  What factors are at play, for example, when people of high IQ flounder, while those of moderate IQ do surprisingly well?”  Goleman argues that answer quite often lies in emotional intelligence, “which includes self-control, zeal and persistence, and the ability to motivate oneself.”  Social and emotional learning is playing an ever increasing role in our schools and in our society. 


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