Brain injury = Amygdala hijacking

Since my brain injury I’m not the calm, logical individual I used to be. But it’s not my fault. There is an enemy within my injured brain who keeps taking over. A little sneaky little thing called the Amygdala. This is the Amygdala hijacking.

Amygdala hijack is the term used to describe compelling emotional responses. These are immediate and overwhelming. This is an overreaction to the actual stimulus because it has triggered a powerful emotional threat.

The Amygdala is the emotional centre for the brain and the Cortex is the thinking area.  When there is a stressful situation the Amygdala overrides the Cortex. It does this because it is engaging the “fight or flight” response.

In dangerous situations this helps us to instinctively respond to the threat without having to over think it. But it is difficult to use intelligent reasoning when this happens. Adrenalin is released into the body, and remains in your system for approximately 18 minutes. In English, this means the Amygdala has hijacked the cortex before your rational mind has an opportunity to come up with a rational response.

The Amygdala decides when it is needed by comparing information from our senses, to what it thinks are comparable memories.  Once it thinks it has a match, we go into a Fight or Flight Response. Our nervous system recognises  the stress, and Adrenalin is released to give our body. This gives us the needed emergency energy to stand and fight, or take to our feet and get out of there.

How your brain injury has given you a hijacker

But unless you really are running from a charging Bull, or fighting off a rabid dog, this can cause us to have outbursts of emotions, leaving us feeling like we have lost control.

When you have a brain injury you could be finding your senses are lying to you which can really confuse the situation. I have double vision, (Double vision trouble from brain injury) balance problems, (Balance feeling unstable due to brain injury, it’s awkward) tinnitus (Tinnitus, the loathsome bells of brain injury) and altered sensation in my limbs (Is my brain injury making me paranoid?) All of which means a lot of the data my senses are reporting is nonsense. This is effectively like the General of an army being told World War 3 has broken out and he must decide whether to hit the nuclear weapon button now or never, when it’s just some kids have been playing Knock Down Ginger.

So what can we do about it?

The best advice I have found so far is to give your emotion a label. This helps re-engage the thinking part of your brain and help you regain some rational control.

  1. Say what you emotion you feel, anger, frightened, etc
  2. Mention what event has caused you to feel like this
  3. Say why you think it made you feel like this

If someone is with you when an Amygdala hijacking outburst happens, they can help by asking you these 3 questions to make you verbalise your responses. This switches the Cortex back on in order to try to think of the answers. Also they can use your answers to show empathy to your situation which feels reassuring.

E.G I realise you’re frustrated, because we missed the train. I know that makes you worried we will be late.

Do you find Amygdala hijacking happens to you? Is there that special person who just always knows what to say to calm you down, or are they always making it worse?

My brain injury has caused me to have Amygdala hijacking episodes. I have outbursts that just aren't me. But these 3 steps can give you control back.

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9 Replies to “Brain injury = Amygdala hijacking”

  1. I suffered a hypoxic brain injury 7 years ago due to being given wrong medication,i passed away and after being revived fell into a coma for 2 months,spent 6 months in hospital.told id never walk or talk again.im very stubborn and i said i would and am now pysically fit again and apart from some speech issues im fine.all apart from my outburst where i get very very angry.and shames me to say my fiance incures most of my outbursts and ive even got physically violent with her.i need some help, my fiance is my world and shes kept me going through hard times,but understandably if i dont try and get some help or resolution she will leave me.she loves me but my outbursts are driving a huge wedge between us and our love.ive asked for help from doctors but they arent really bothered about looking into it….HELP ME PLEASE.

    1. Hi Darren, first congratulations for the challenges you have overcome. I feel your pain in that you so desperately want some help with your emotional responses. Where do you live? Lets see if there is another organisation in your area who can help.

      1. I live in St Austell, cornwall..Thank you for the congratulations,but im worried that my biggest challenge is yet to show itself and my biggest lose is yet to come.This is all very awkward as i havent really had any help regards to learning to control my outbursts and i fear that if it carries on i will lose the one main thing and person to me…the person who has given me real meaning in overcoming my brain injury and its side effects.unfortunately only i can overcome this bad side myself.but im very in the dark about all this.

        1. Have you spoken to Headway? Their OT’s are really helpful with being able to tell you about local services as they are in contact with a lot of them and they can get to know you and help express how important this is to you. http://headwaycornwall.org.uk/

  2. You make sense, but that’s not how it feels to me when I loose control. I know how to react, but I feel like a helpless observer when my body reacts in rage, and the best I can do is to recognize when something is about to push me to that limit, and leave the situation before it happens. Since my last outburst three years ago, I have stopped ever going places without a family member with me, who knows to step in and take over, suggesting I go rest in the car… That external help is the only thing that enabled me to stop breaking things and shouting nonsense at people. Then I have to return to the “scene of the crime” and apologize and tell them what steps I have taken to prevent future outbursts, and why I know it will never happen again, which is very embarrassing.

    1. I’m sure you’re not alone in that David, but you should be congratulated for recognising what situations to avoid, or following a loved ones guidance when you need that support.
      Don’t be so hard on yourself, you’ve clearly come a long way.

    2. This is how I experience outbursts as well. Its like I split into 2 people.. one who is freaking out, and the other who is trapped watching and even trying to say ‘stop’. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but i’m comforted in hearing you describe it the same way.

      1. Megan it’s nice that we are able to talk about these things as it does help to know you’re not the only one. Sometimes there isn’t a quick and easy solution to everything, but we can draw strength from each other. 🤗

  3. After my brain injury I have a lot of trouble with anger. Sometimes I really lose it; exactly like Megan described. I’ve done a lot of work over the course of 10 years in addressing it, including self analysis and taking responsibility for my outbursts, rather than blaming it on whoever or whatever it was that made me angry. I’ve also done long-term counselling with a clinical psychologist, and most recently several sessions with a social worker who specialised in anger management issues. All of it has helped, but nothing has taken away the issue I have with controlling these terrible reactions I have to things that ultimately I can’t control anyway, so what’s the point of being angry….I’ve come to the conclusion that there isn’t really anything that is going to fix this problem (for me anyway) and that I need to find a way to manage it more effectively. A couple of the things I’m trying include intensive physical training and the enrichment of my life through positive experiences. I also make a big effort to avoid negativity, which means no whinging, no whingers and absolutely no news media. Meditation is meant to be a big help too.

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