Updated: Jan 24
“That man cut me off in traffic!” yelled Rick, “He saw that I was turning, and he turned right in front of me – and from the wrong lane!” Seven hours earlier, the driver of a black Suburban had made a right turn from the wrong turning lane, the left one, and cut off Rick in the process. Then, the other driver had the audacity to yell at Rick, telling him that HE was in the wrong.
“When I pulled up to the stop sign, I was in the right turning lane and he was in the left turning lane,” Rick explained “but he had on his right turn signal.” As traffic cleared, and as Rick predicted, when he began to turn right out of his neighborhood and onto a four-lane highway, the other driver, who we will refer to as “Suburban Guy” also turned right. This nearly caused a collision right then and there. If Rick had not been paying attention, he would have been hit. Rick allowed Suburban Guy to proceed ahead of him but not without incident.
What ensued next is where it gets tricky. Two grown men are now driving side by side down the road jeering at each other, each in an emotional game of right-fighting as they operate their own motor vehicles. In one instant, the normally calm, cool and collected Rick became so overcome with emotion that he put not only his life but also others’ lives in danger.
Hours later, he was still discussing how wrong Suburban Guy was by lamenting, “You can’t turn right from that lane. Once you realize you have made a mistake and are in the wrong turning lane, you wait until the other driver has turned, check to ensure traffic is clear, and then turn right.” He then turned the situation into a personal attack on Suburban Guy. “Who does he think he is? He thinks just because he lives in ‘this’ kind of neighborhood, he owns the roads?” Rick’s passionate retelling of the story and the day’s encounter continued for hours.
Whose life was altered as a result of this incident? Rick’s? Suburban Guy’s? Onlookers?
Because of Rick’s defensive driving, no accident occurred and no one was physically injured. However, six weeks later, Rick was still emotionally affected and discussing that chance encounter. He continued passionately telling of how he was wronged at the hands of the driver in a black SUV.
Rick was emotionally hijacked in the moment, and weeks later, he still chose to hand over his happiness to a complete stranger. That stranger owned him, emotionally.
What is an Emotional Hijack?
In 1966, Daniel Goleman coined the term “amygdala hijack” in his book entitled Emotional Intelligence: Why it Matters More than IQ. Today, the amygdala hijack is commonly referred to as “going limbic” but officially referred to as an “emotional hijack.” It describes the emotional response that happens in our limbic system, when the hippocampus communicates to the amygdala that a threat is imminent.
Emotional hijacks are the “fight or flight” responses that occur, unconsciously, in our brains in a fraction of a second. It is the overwhelming emotion that results in actions that, under normal circumstances, would not occur. It’s this survival mechanism that causes us to react to stimulus before our rational minds have time to process the situation.
When a heckler yells out during a political speech, “Liar!,” when passengers begin fighting on an airplane, when an individual commits an act of violence at a peaceful protest, when a police officer mistakes a cell phone for a gun and shoots, or when a father stabs his son over a video game disagreement, emotional hijacking has occurred. All of those events have actually happened and people are very quick to make judgments, telling how “they” would have responded, if it had been them in any of those situations. The problem is that they are processing the events from a state of being (somewhat) rational, and their amygdala is not experiencing that event in the nanosecond of time when it occurred. Emotional hijacking occurs in the brain and is not a rational response; it’s an automatic one.
Emotional Hijacking in Everyday Life
You may be thinking, I would never do any of those things, so how does this translate to my life?
I’m so glad you asked.
When a coworker gets credit for your work and you are overcome with emotion resulting in either “telling them off” in the office, feeling the need to tell your side of the story to anyone you encounter or even quitting your job, you’ve been emotionally hijacked. When you see your husband having lunch with another woman, when your child breaks your grandmother’s vase, when a fellow shopper takes the last 75” TV at a Black Friday sale, or when someone cuts you off in traffic, you risk being emotionally hijacked if you’re not managing your emotions.
Emotional hijacks basically equate to freaking out or overreacting to a life event and are a result of past experiences and emotions that have negatively affected us, leaving an imprint on our brains and becoming triggers for future events. They are often a result of being over-stimulated or being overly stressed out.
The police officer who sees a cell phone and thinks it is a gun has been in numerous situations where an actual gun was pulled, and his limbic system takes over. If you have ever lost your cool and snapped at a friend or loved one, you’ve been emotionally hijacked.
As I was explaining this phenomenon to my friend Rick, several weeks later, we went on to discuss how his actions of driving down the road and yelling at the other driver, he himself experienced an emotional hijack. What could he have done differently to remain calm and keep the joy he wants for himself?
Preventing Emotional Hijacks
Emotional hijacks are preventable. Just like any other negative behavior, steps can be taken to regain or maintain control of your emotions. The first step is always an awareness of the phenomenon, so if you have read this far, you’ve already taken step one. Congratulations!
Claim It/Name It/Tame It
As the old saying goes, you have to name it to claim it, but when dealing with emotional hijacks, consider a three step approach – claim it, name it, and tame it.
After becoming aware of the fact that you are susceptible to being emotionally hijacked, and I dare to say that you have been emotionally hijacked at some point in your life, to prevent future embarrassing outbursts, you must admit to the fact that you have emotional triggers. Claim the emotion as it occurs and acknowledge that you created it – no one else created it for you. You and your brain created it, so you have personally responsibility in managing it. Although someone or something may trigger you, ultimately you own the emotion. Your brain, through your past experiences, has shaped your emotional reactions.
After acknowledging that your emotions are indeed your emotions, you must name the emotions you feel. The most emotionally intelligent individuals are the ones who use a wide vocabulary to describe their feelings. This goes beyond sad and mad to rejected, frustrated and aggravated. What exactly are you feeling when your limbic system is triggered? Name it.
As soon as we name the emotion we are feeling, our brain immediately begins to calm down. In essence, by acknowledging your own feelings, your brain feels heard. Enough space is created to allow your brain time to reevaluate the situation, consider alternative actions and proceed rationally. You don’t even have to practice taming your emotions in a real-life situation – you can recount past experiences, reflect on how you could have reacted instead, and rewire your brain to respond appropriately to triggers moving forward.
Grace and Space
It may sound silly, but you can speak to your brain. Let it know you appreciate it for looking out for you, but that you would like it to respond to triggers with less emotion. Then, when triggers do occur, give yourself grace and space.
Grace Understand that you are human. Every one of us has an amygdala, and yours is working to protect you.
Space Count to three, breathe deeply, or take a break. Even giving your brain a moment to process before acting will often result in a more rational response.
f you begin practicing these techniques, you will become more aware of your emotions, and this awareness will occur begin to occur naturally in stressful situations.