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The Anatomy of an Emotional Hijacking

How it happens and what to do when emotions take over

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Photo by Photo Boards on Unsplash
Photo by Photo Boards on Unsplash
Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

The ‘career girl’ murders

On a hot August afternoon in 1963, the same day that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to a civil rights march on Washington.

On that day Richard Robles, a hardened burglar who had just been paroled from a three-year sentence for the more than one hundred break-ins he had pulled to support a heroin habit, decided to do one more. He wanted to renounce crime, but he desperately needed money for his girlfriend and their three-year-old daughter.

The apartment he broke into that day belonged to two young women. Janice Wylie, a researcher at Newsweek magazine, and Emily Hoffert, a grade-school teacher. Although Robles chose the apartment to burglarize because he thought no one would be there, Wylie was home. Threatening her with a knife, Robles tied her up.

As he was leaving, Hoffert came home and Robles proceeded to tie her up too to make good his escape. While he was tying up Hoffert, Janice Wylie warned him that he would not get away with his crime. She would remember his face and help the police track him down.

Robles, who had promised himself this was to have been his last burglary, panicked at that, completely losing control.

In what is now known as the Career girl Murders, Robles grabbed a soda bottle and clubbed the women until they were unconscious. Then awash in rage and fear, he slashed and stabbed them over and over with a kitchen knife.

Looking back at that moment while in prison some twenty-five years later, Robles lamented, “I just went bananas. My head just exploded!”. Robles who some five decades later is still serving a life sentence has had lots of time to regret those few minutes of rage unleashed.

Photo by Photo Boards on Unsplash

What are neural hijackings?

When you think about it, his “going bananas and head explosion” episode happens to everyone, you and I included. They happen in less catastrophic form, but not necessarily less intense. They also happen to us with fair frequency.

Think back to the last time you “lost it”, blowing up at someone — your partner, child or colleague, or perhaps the driver of another car who cut you in traffic or someone with a different political view.

Episodes, where you lost control of yourself for brief moments are fairly common. Usually, with some reflection and hindsight, you might conclude that your rage was uncalled for or the words you used were inappropriate.

These emotional explosions are called neural hijackings. During these moments, evidence suggests that the center of the limbic system, the amygdala which is part of the brain that is responsible for emotions and memory, proclaims an emergency. During this emergency, the rest of the brain is recruited to deal with the perceived threat.

These hijackings, typically triggered by emotions like fear, anxiety, aggression and anger were very vital to our survival as a species. Early humans were exposed to the constant threat of being killed or injured by wild animals or other tribes.

To improve the chances of survival, the fight-or-flight response evolved to allow for automatic response to physical danger without thinking.

This hijacking usually occurs very quickly. They trigger a fight or flight reaction moments before the neocortex, the thinking part of the brain, has had a chance to fully understand what is happening, let alone decide if it is a good idea.

The telltale sign of this hijack is that once the moment passes, you are not sure what came over you.

Your rational brain

The frontal lobes are the two large areas at the front of your brain. They are part of the cerebral cortex which is a newer, rational and more developed part of the brain system. This is where your thinking, reasoning, decision-making and planning happens.

The frontal lobes allow you to process and think about your emotions which in turn helps you to manage them and determine a logical response. When you sense impending danger or a threat, your amygdala wants to automatically activate the fight-or-flight response immediately. However, at the same time, your frontal lobes are processing the information to determine if danger really is present and the most logical response to it.

That very brief moment between when you perceive the external threat and when your frontal lobes are processing the information to determine the best course of action is crucial.

If you let the neural hijacking happen, it results in sudden, illogical and irrational overreaction to the situation which you most likely will regret. Managing your response to external threats and guarding yourself against this neural hijacking is the central theme of the concept of emotional intelligence.

Photo by Sergio de Paula on Unsplash

Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to identify and manage your own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. An emotionally intelligent individual is highly conscious of his or her emotional states whether positive — joy, love, gratitude or negative — frustration, sadness or resentment.

An emotionally intelligent individual is also specially tuned in to the emotions others experience since they are attuned to theirs. Understanding and having this type of intelligence can be a game-changer and helps you to stay in control regardless of external circumstances.

It’s quite clear that having skills that encourages sensitivity to emotional signals from within and from the social environment could make you a better friend, parent, employee, and leader.

Symptoms of a “neural hijack”

  1. Rapid heartbeat
  2. Sweaty palms
  3. Goosebumps on your skin
  4. An energy surge with a need to take action

How to stop a “neural hijack”

Symptoms of a hijack can be eased or stopped by consciously activating the rational, logical part of your brain. This will take some practice and persistence. The following steps have been my go-to for dealing with a ‘hijack’.

  1. The first step is the self-awareness to acknowledge that you feel threatened or stressed and that your fight or flight response has been activated. When you are aware of this, you can start to observe how your emotions and body react to different levels of stress and threat.
  2. When you notice the fight or flight response has been activated, the goal is to calm down and take control. You will need to remind yourself that what you are feeling is an automatic response, not necessarily the most logical once since the emotional part of your brain is in control.
  3. When you are calm, consciously engage the logical part of your brain by thinking objectively about the situation and finding a thoughtful and rational solution.
  4. Continue to breathe slowly and evenly and focus on what is going on in your body as you inhale and exhale.

In theory, these steps are easy to follow, but to be honest, they are difficult to implement in real-life scenarios, especially if you’ve not had any practice. You can practice these steps in a controlled environment using the “Trigger exercise” as described below.

Trigger Excercise

The ‘trigger’ exercise is a reactive approach to developing your emotional awareness. This exercise requires summoning strong emotions and breaking down your triggers.

  1. Prepare a notepad.
  2. Pick a topic that triggers you. For example: Opposing political view.
  3. Find an article or video that argues in favour of the opposing political view.
  4. Read the full article or watch the whole video. You should feel triggered — i.e. experience some level of frustration or annoyance.
  5. Write down the name of at least one emotion that you feel. If you can note down two or three, that is even better. For example “Disturbed”.
  6. Break down each emotion, one at a time: “Why did I feel disturbed? What moment in this article or video triggered this emotion?”. Write down the reasons.
  7. Read the article or watch the video again, and as each emotion begins to surface, identify and name it in your head. For example “I am currently feeling disturbed because that reporter said…”
  8. Note how you feel each time you finish naming the emotion and breaking it down.

In conclusion, our minds are exquisitely complicated and coordinated; feelings are essential to thought and thought to feelings. But when passions surge, the balance tips, most times the emotional mind takes the upper hand, swamping the rational mind. This is why understanding and managing your emotions is vital to leading a healthy and fulfilling life.

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