Amygdala Hijacking

“Amyg… what?” I hear myself say as Lizette suggests this post… But this has turned out to be one of the most interesting topics I’ve written about so far.

Imagine you’re in the traffic… you’ve had a particularly bad day so far, and nothing is quite going your way. Just as you’re about to get your turn to go through the intersection, after waiting at the traffic light for what seems to be hours, someone cuts you off and takes your spot. 
You. could. kill.
The rush of emotions – pure rage – seem to take over your entire body, threatening to implode if you don’t do something. You shout. You hoot. You hit your steering wheel.  And long after that driver has disappeared, you are still angry, feeling emotional and on high alert for any other person who thinks they can cut you off…

Sound familiar? Hmmm… do I hear a ‘yes’?

Well, simply put folks, that’s an Amygdala Hijacking – and countless adults (and toddlers) have experienced this.

To understand how an Amygdala Hijacking works, we must first explain how your brain works.

An adult brain (which is very different from a child’s brain) works by receiving information through the senses. This information goes via the brain’s switchboard (the thalamus) to the emotional center of the brain (the amygdala) and the thinking part of the brain (the neo-cortex) simultaneously. Both parts of your brain process the information and then decide on a reaction – but for the most part (and on good days…) it is usually your ‘thinking-brain’ that calls the shots.

For example, you visit the zoo and spot a lion. The emotional center of your brain sees the lion and sets off an alarm, but your thinking-brain reminds you that you’re at a zoo and that the lion can’t get to you, so you’re safe. Your thinking-brain has the metaphoric ‘pin code’ to deactivate the alarm that your emotional brain sets off, commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.

Remember that the emotional center of your brain is really just a reactive piece of engineering – one that is not logical. Rather it is very important and useful in times of severe stress and pressure, as well as a host of other functions – but logic? No…

Sometimes though… your emotions hijack your brain, whether it be because your day has been terrible, you are not feeling well, or something triggers off an emotion that you didn’t remember even existed… for whatever reason, your thinking-brain does not have enough time offer a ‘pin code’ and your emotional brain just takes over. This… is an amygdala hijacking.

Other examples of amygdala hijackings are when we tell off our boss, when we write that foul email and hit ‘send’, when we scream at the cashier, and basically – when we are so emotional that we behave terribly, and regret it later, once we are able to ‘think clearly’ again. In other words, we come to regret our actions once our thinking-brain has taken over again.

When the emotional center of your brain – your amygdala – is hijacked, you are literally not able to think straight. Your thinking-brain is side-stepped and you’re running on pure emotions with not a logical thought in sight…

Studies have found that you’re in this state of amygdala hijacking for a total of 18 minutes. For this time you are highly illogical, emotional, and basically in ‘fight mode’. You are not able to think reasonably for these 18 minutes.  When this passes, you still have the ‘fight or flight’ hormones racing through your body for another 3-4 hours, during which time you’ll still be rather defensive, sensitive and prone to emotional reactions.

So why are we talking about amygdala hijacking today? Well, we wanted to introduce the concept to you as a parent so that you would be able to understand your child’s amygdala hijacking (commonly referred to as a tantrum) much better…

As adults, we have the luxury of our thinking-brain’s assistance for the most part, but what about our little ones, whose neo-cortex’s are still in development? They experience everything exclusively through the emotional center of their brains until the age of four, when the neo-cortex has been wired to the point that it can start to lend a helping hand.

This means that everything a child sees, hears, touches, smells, tastes, or learns is emotionally-laden – figuratively dripping with emotion… This is why babies learn much better when emotions (like love) are involved, but it is also why they are prone to emotional outbursts. They have no ‘pin-code’ – they just have raw emotion (at least until the age of three).

Now, can you better understand why your child can be so emotional, self-centered, reactive and sensitive? It is because their amygdala is running the show… Their thinking-brain is still being wired and isn’t of much use – which is why it is important for parents to help wire the logical part of their children’s brain and patiently teach their children the self control they so desperately need.

We can create the ideal environment to foster self-control skills by modeling self-restraint, by ensuring that our children’s day-to-day environment is not over-bearing, and by creating routines that give them feelings of security and predictability.

But, as we’ve seen, not only children have amygdala hijackings… As parents, we have bad days. As parents we also have to deal with highly emotional little ones, having their share of amygdala hijackings throughout the day, every day… It can be tough to cope sometimes.

The good news?

Firstly – as a parent you now have a better understanding of your child’s world and can relate to them when they are having a tantrum. This understanding fosters much needed patience.

Secondly – studies in adults reveal that simply an awareness that you are having an amygdala hijacking is enough to give you the ability to deal with it appropriately. Just acknowledging it, gives your thinking-brain the heads-up and enables it to use the ‘pin code’ to deactivate that emotional outburst. You know you have 18 minutes to calm down (before you hoot, swear or send that email…) and a further 3-4 hours of being a little more sensitive. So you can remove yourself from the situation, and take a few deep breaths.  Remember to be gentle with yourself and your loved ones in this time and avoid indulging in behaviour that you’ll probably regret later.

Now isn’t that great news?

Words: Loren Stow
when we know better… we do better

*Practica Parents: The very nature of the Practica Programme is to create the structure, order and predictability that your child craves and needs for optimal development. The Programme offers a wide variety of activities that may seem overwhelming to time-strapped parents who try to do everything – especially if you’re homeschooling. However, this variety is only there to offer choice and so that your curriculum can be agile. Remember, always, that no one is more central in your child’s life than you are and that no one can take your place. So relax and focus on using the Practica Programme in your unique situation to make the most of the time that you DO set aside to spend with your child.

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