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.
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.
- Say what you emotion you feel, anger, frightened, etc
- Mention what event has caused you to feel like this
- 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?