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Amygdala Hijacking: A Major Threat to Recovery (Part 1)

Amygdala Hijacking: A Major Threat to Recovery (Part 1)


This is the first of two articles dealing with the phenomenon of “amygdala highjacking” (Goleman, 2011) and the threats that it may pose to your clients’ recovery. This article describes the phenomenon, its disruptive influence on our lives and our relationships, and its association with increased susceptibility to relapse. Part 2 will provide specific pointers for working with clients to counteract the negative influence of amygdala highjacking over the course of primary treatment as well as in ongoing sobriety maintenance. 

As basic counseling courses teach, there are two main parts of the brain that determine how we will respond to a particular situation: the neocortex, or “thinking brain,” which is the neurological center for rational thought processes; and the amygdala, or the emotional center of the brain, which triggers an emotional response when activated. Normally, when we receive incoming information, the neocortex is activated and we process the input in a rational, logical manner. When the amygdala is activated, however, we respond to the situation in an emotional manner, with various degrees of intensity.

Amydala highjacking occurs when the amygdala, based on past experience, perceives that a situation poses a threat to our overall safety and well-being. Since the amygdala processes information 250 times faster than the neocortex, the emotional brain highjacks the rational brain and the classic fight-or-flight response is triggered (Goleman, 2011). When that occurs, we become highly illogical and emotional, and our usual ability to process the situation through intelligence or reasoning gets bypassed. We all have a tendency to succumb to this knee-jerk reaction when our buttons get pushed. There are three basic signs of an amygdala highjacking: (a) a strong emotional reaction, (b) sudden onset, and (c) a subsequent realization that our response was inappropriate when we reflect on the situation after we have calmed down (Horowitz, 2012). 

A classic example of amygdala highjacking occurs when a couple argues. One partner says something that pushes the other’s buttons, which triggers a knee-jerk reaction in the second partner. All rational processing goes out the window. The offended partner flies off the handle and starts yelling insults to the other partner. When that occurs, the first partner will most likely experience his or her own amygdala highjacking, and a vicious cycle of escalation ensues. Unless one partner is smart enough to call (and enforce) a “time-out,” the argument will escalate to the point of extremely hurtful words and may even culminate in physical violence.

Vulnerability to Amygdala Highjacking
Based on my own observation I am convinced that those of us who are prone to exaggerated episodes of anxiety appear to be particularly susceptible to amygdala highjacking. This pattern is particularly prevalent among practicing alcoholics and drug addicts, as well as among many people at various stages of recovery.

Amygdala highjacking can wreak havoc on the one who has been highjacked, as well as on the people who are unfortunate enough to be in his or her immediate environment when the highjacking occurs. One’s propensity toward amygdala highjacking is exacerbated by the use of alcohol and many other drugs, and this dysfunctional response pattern more often than not carries over into one’s recovery.

According to one authority, once an amygdala highjacking has occurred, the brain kicks into high fight-or-flight mode, and the person is unable to respond in a rational and empathetic manner for the next eighteen minutes (Huyssteen, 2010). Thus, it is critically important that a client who is subject to particularly powerful episodes of amydala highjacking learn to identify when he or she is about to “go off” and then force him- or herself to take a twenty minute time-out to calm down and enable the thinking brain to come back into prominence. What one does during that time-out is also critically important; we will cover this in some detail in the second article.

Increased Threat of Relapse
Although I am unaware of any research that specifically addresses the possible influence of amygdala highjacking on one’s vulnerability to relapse, it stands to reason that a propensity toward frequent, exaggerated knee-jerk reactions would be likely to increase one’s likelihood of relapse.

As previously mentioned, people who are prone to episodes of exaggerated anxiety (a group that includes many, if not most, substance abusers) are particularly susceptible to amygdala highjacking. Such individuals can easily fall into a pattern of frequent highjacking episodes throughout the day. This can be particularly true for people who are engaged in highly stressful occupations,such as lawyers, salespeople and business executives.

If a client gets caught up in a pattern of chronic amygdala highjacking, he or she will typically be chronically “wired,” restless and highly irritable and will experience frequent episodes of insomnia. This constant state of emotional and physiological turmoil can, in turn, trigger cravings for alcohol and/or drugs to ease the pain. From a relapse prevention standpoint, this raises obvious red flags, indicating a need for effective therapeutic intervention.

People characterized as hot-tempered generally suffer from chronic amygdala highjacking. This can wreak havoc in both one’s work life and one’s relationships. Frequent outbursts on the job can lead to a pattern of continual job loss, which seriously erodes one’s self-esteem and emotional well-being, creating a strong vulnerability for relapse. Likewise, chronic amygdala highjacking places a heavy strain on our relationships with significant others. Few spouses or partners will put up with the ensuing verbal and even physical abuse. Thus, the relationship spirals out of control, the highjacked person’s life truly becomes unmanageable, and a trip to the corner bar or drug dealer becomes an increasingly tempting prospect.

In summary, I believe that counselors and therapists working with substance abusers should learn to identify clients who are particularly vulnerable to getting caught up in amygdala highjacking and also learn how to effectively intervene to minimize the potentially devastating consequences of this dangerous phenomenon. We will focus on this topic in greater depth in Part 2.

Goleman, D. (2011). The brain and emotional intelligence: New insights. Northhampton, MA: More Than Sound.

Horowitz, S. (2012). Emotional intelligence: Stop amygdala hijackings. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts. 

Huyssteen, L. van. (2010). Practically speaking, “amygdala hijacking.” Retrieved from http://practicaprogram.blogspot.com/2010/09/amygdala-highjacking.html.

Smalley, G. (2012). Fight your way to a better marriage: How healthy conflict can take you to deeper levels of intimacy. New York: Howard Books.

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