Emotional Hijacking: Do Your Emotions Control You?

by Kristine Davis, LPCC, NeurOptimal® Certified Trainer

Have you ever found yourself in a position where you could not control your emotions, even though you know logically that your fear, anger, or worry is not logical?

Many of us find ourselves feeling like an unwilling slave to our emotions at some point or another. We have angry outbursts or snap at a friend when we don’t mean to.  Not only does this leave us feeling bad afterward, it can ultimately cause bigger issues in our work and home relationships.

Why is this? How can our angry emotions completely take over our logical mind? In 1995, psychologist Daniel Goleman published a book spelling out this phenomena, the ‘amydala hijack’ or ‘emotional hijack’.

Think of the amydala in your brain as the ‘emergency override’ center in your brain. It is our emotional processor, and is constantly scanning for threats. It is ready to activate your fight-or-flight response in a split second. This is crucial when we are in very dangerous circumstances (alone in a jungle, for example). For most of us however, there is usually not a leopard crouched behind us, ready to make us it’s dinner.  

But our modern, somewhat cushy lifestyle doesn’t stop our amygdala from looking for threats.  This is why it sometimes perceives stimuli in our daily lives as a danger and bypasses or ‘hijacks’ our normal reasoning processes, causing us to get angry, upset, or anxious.

What can we do about it? Well, just being aware that this can happen is a start. Learning how to be aware of our emotions and what might be causing us to react a certain way can help us on the path to controlling these outbursts.  Here are some tips to practice next time you have an angry outburst that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Think to yourself:

  • Why did I react the way I did?

  • What was the situation that made me lose control?

  • Is there another feeling or emotion underneath this outburst (Guilt? Embarrassment?)

  • How will this situation affect me in the long run? In an hour, a week a year?

  • What can I do differently next time to try to control this reaction?

Learning how to be aware and in control of our emotions is no easy task, but with effort, progress can be made.

Thanks for reading! ~Kristine