Monday, September 01, 2014

Rick Hanson - The Mechanisms of Upset and Emotional Hijacking

Here are two cool posts from Dr. Rick Hanson (Buddhist neuroscientist) on "The Machinery of Upset" and "Emotional Hijacking." Both of these posts deal with the survival mode of the brain, essentially the limbic system and brain stem, the parts of the brain that take over when we are triggered by a traumatic memory/experience.

At the bottom, there is also a definition of the amygdala hijack, a term coined by Daniel Goleman.

When the amygdala takes over, we become our fear. Making that fear an object of awareness is one way to break that fear trance.

The Machinery of Upset

posted on: August 4th, 2014 
(Emotional) life is great when we feel enthusiastic, contented, peaceful, happy, interested, loving, etc. But when we’re upset, or aroused to go looking for trouble, life ain’t so great.

To address this problem, let’s turn to a strategy used widely in science (and Buddhism, interestingly): analyze things into their fundamental elements, such as the quarks and other subatomic particles that form an atom or the Five Aggregates in Buddhism of form, feeling (the “hedonic tone” of experience as pleasant-neutral-unpleasant), perception, volitional formations, and consciousness.

We’ll apply that strategy to the machinery of getting upset. Here is a summary of the eight major “gears” of that machine – somewhat based on how they unfold in time, though they actually often happen in circular or simultaneous ways, intertwining with and co-determining each other.

The point of this close analysis, this deconstruction, is not intellectual understanding or theory, but increasing your own mindfulness into your experience, and creating more points of intervention within it to reduce the suffering you cause for yourself – and other people.

This will be more real for you if you first imagine a recent upset or two, and replay it in your mind in slow motion.

  • What do we focus on, what do we pick out of the larger mosaic?
  • What meaning do we give the event? How do we frame it?
  • How significant do we make it? (Is it a 2 on the Ugh scale . . . Or a 10?)
  • What intentions do we attribute to others?
  • What are the embedded beliefs about other people? The world? The past? The future?
  • In sum, what views are we attached to? -> Mainly frontal lobe and language circuits of left temporal lobe.
  • Upsets arise within the perspective of “I.”
  • What is the sense of “I” that is running at the time? Strong? Weak? Mistreated?
  • Are you taking things personally?
  • How does the sense of self change over the course of the upset (often intensifying)? -> Circuits of “self” are distributed throughout the brain.
  • We all have vulnerabilities, which challenges penetrate through and/or get amplified by (moderated by inner and outer resources).
  • Physiological: Pain, fatigue, hunger, lack of sleep, biochemical imbalances, illness.
  • Temperamental: Anxious, rigid, angry, melancholic, spirited/ADHD.
  • Psychological: Personality, culture, effects of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. -> Depending on its nature, a vulnerability can be embodied or represented in many ways.
  • Stimuli are interpreted in terms of episodic memories of similar experiences.
  • And in terms of implicit, emotional memories or other, unconscious associations. (Especially trauma)
  • These shade, distort, and amplify stimuli, packaging them with “spin” and sending them off to the rest of the brain. -> Hippocampus, with other memory circuits.
  • The feeling tone of “unpleasant” is in full swing at this point, though present in the previous “gears” of survival reactivity.
  • In primitive organisms – and thus the primitive circuits of our own brain – the unpleasant/ aversion circuit is more primary than the pleasant/approach circuit since aversion often calls for all the animal’s resources and approaching does not.
  • Aversion can also be a temperamental tendency.
  • The Buddha paid much attention to aversion – such as to ill will – in his teachings, because it is so fundamental, and such a source of suffering. -> Involves the limbic system, especially the amygdala.
Bodily Activation
  • The body energizes to respond; getting upset activates the stress machinery just like getting chased by a lion.
  • Sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight).
  • Hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
  • All this triggers blood to the large muscles (hit or run), dilates pupils (see better in darkness), cascades cortisol and adrenaline, increases heart rate, etc.
  • These systems activate quickly, but their effects fade away slowly.
  • There is much collateral damage in the body and mind from chronically “going to war.”
Negative Emotions
  • Emotions are a fantastic evolutionary achievement for promoting grandchildren.
  • Both the prosocial bonding emotions of caring, compassion, love, sympathetic joy . . .
  • And the fight-or-flight emotions of fear, anger, sorrow, shame.
  • Emotions organize, mobilize the whole brain.
  • They also shade our perceptions and thoughts in self-reinforcing ways.
Loss of Executive Control
  • The survival machine is designed to make you identify yourself with your body and your emotional reactions. That identification is highly motivating for keeping yourself alive!
  • So, in an upset, there is typically a loss of “observing ego” detachment, and instead a kind of emotional hijacking – all facilitated by neural circuits in which amygdala-shaped information gets fast-tracked throughout the brain, ahead of slower frontal lobe interpretations.
  • With maturation (sometimes into the mid-twenties) and with experience, the frontal (especially prefrontal) cortices can comment on and direct emotional reactions more effectively.
* * * * *

Emotional Hijacking

posted on: September 1st, 2014 
* * * * *

Here is a definition of the "amygdala hijack" that Daniel Goleman outlined in his seminal book, Emotional Intelligence.

Amygdala hijack

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Amygdala hijack - fear caused by optical stimulus
Amygdala hijack is a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.[1] Drawing on the work of Joseph E. LeDoux, Goleman uses the term to describe emotional responses from people which are immediate and overwhelming, and out of measure with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat.[2]


From the thalamus, a part of the stimulus goes directly to the amygdala while another part is sent to the neocortex or "thinking brain". If the amygdala perceives a match to the stimulus, i.e., if the record of experiences in the hippocampus tells the amygdala that it is a fight, flight or freeze situation, then the amygdala triggers the HPA (hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal) axis and hijacks the rational brain. This emotional brain activity processes information milliseconds earlier than the rational brain, so in case of a match, the amygdala acts before any possible direction from the neocortex can be received. If, however, the amygdala does not find any match to the stimulus received with its recorded threatening situations, then it acts according to the directions received from the neo-cortex. When the amygdala perceives a threat, it can lead that person to react irrationally and destructively.[3]

Goleman states that "[e]motions make us pay attention right now — this is urgent - and gives us an immediate action plan without having to think twice. The emotional component evolved very early: Do I eat it, or does it eat me?" The emotional response "can take over the rest of the brain in a millisecond if threatened."[4][5] An amygdala hijack exhibits three signs: strong emotional reaction, sudden onset, and post-episode realization if the reaction was inappropriate.[4]

Goleman later emphasised that "self-control is crucial ...when facing someone who is in the throes of an amygdala hijack"[6] so as to avoid a complementary hijacking - whether in work situations, or in private life. Thus for example 'one key marital competence is for partners to learn to soothe their own distressed feelings...nothing gets resolved positively when husband or wife is in the midst of an emotional hijacking.'[7] The danger is that "when our partner becomes, in effect, our enemy, we are in the grip of an 'amygdala hijack' in which our emotional memory, lodged in the limbic center of our brain, rules our reactions without the benefit of logic or reason...which causes our bodies to go into a 'fight or flight' response."[8]

Positive hijacks

Goleman points out that "'not all limbic hijackings are distressing. When a joke strikes someone as so uproarious that their laughter is almost explosive, that, too, is a limbic response. It is at work also in moments of intense joy."[9]

He also cites the case of a man strolling by a canal when he saw a girl staring petrified at the water. "[B]efore he knew quite why, he had jumped into the water — in his coat and tie. Only once he was in the water did he realize that the girl was staring in shock at a toddler who had fallen in — whom he was able to rescue."[10]

Emotional relearning

LeDoux was positive about the possibility of learning to control the amygdala's hair-trigger role in emotional outbursts. "Once your emotional system learns something, it seems you never let it go. What therapy does is teach you how to control it — it teaches your neocortex how to inhibit your amygdala. The propensity to act is suppressed, while your basic emotion about it remains in a subdued form."[11]


  1. Nadler, Relly. "What Was I Thinking? Handling the Hijack". Retrieved 2010-04-06.
  2. "Conflict and Your Brain aka "The Amygdala Hijacking"". Retrieved 2010-04-06.
  3. Freedman, Joshua. "Hijacking of the Amygdala". Retrieved 2010-04-06.[dead link]
  4. Horowitz, Shell. "Emotional Intelligence - Stop Amygdala Hijackings". Retrieved 2010-04-06.
  5. Hughes, Dennis. "Interview with Daniel Goleman". Retrieved 2010-04-06.
  6. Daniel Goleman, Working with Emotional Intelligence (1999) p. 87
  7. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence p. 144
  8. Rita DeMaria et al., Building Intimate Relationships (2003) p. 57
  9. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence p. 14
  10. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence p. 17
  11. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence p. 213
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