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How The Amygdala Hijack Can Be Dangerous For Parents

Author:NeuroGym Team

When the Amygdala Takes Over We Become Irrational

Being a parent is a very difficult job, obviously. You’re handed a little human that is vulnerable, completely dependent, and can’t tell you how they’re feeling. All the parenting courses and books in the world can’t prepare you for having to raise a little mind to be a big mind who is healthy, happy, and a good person. But if you’re a parent that’s there for your kids and doing your best, you deserve a round of applause because it’s a tireless job. Your young kids don’t know how to regulate their emotions, and due to amygdala hijack, you may sometimes forget how to as well.

Being a parent is also a rewarding job, and parents usually want what’s best for their kids. We all make mistakes, and moms and dads aren’t perfect either. It’s important not to be too hard on yourself if you’re doing your best, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to improve our own skills to be the best parents we can be. That’s why it’s important to learn what it looks like when our brains are hijacked by our emotions. If we can see the signs of when our amygdala is out of control, we can put ourselves back in control. We’re going to take a look at what the amygdala does, what happens when it’s hijacked, how you can spot the signs, what you can do, and how to stop yourself from getting burned out.

Amygdala Hijack

What Is the Amygdala

The amygdala (pronounced ey-mig-dill-ah) is a part of the brain located in the temporal lobe near the hippocampus. Despite the fact that it’s commonly referred to as a singular part of the brain, it’s actually divided in two, one half in each hemisphere.

The amygdala is part of the limbic system. This system also includes the hippocampus and cingulate gyrus. The limbic system is involved in how we respond emotionally and the behaviors we do in order to survive, which include protecting offspring and reproduction. The limbic system is the part of our brain which controls our fight-or-flight response. This response is a survival mechanism which the brain uses to figure out how to deal with a threat.

The amygdala plays a role in processing emotions and fear. There is scientific evidence that suggests our amygdala may perceive fear-inducing things in our environment before we are consciously aware of them. Put another way, the amygdala evolved to help us handle threatening things. This goes back to the fight-or-flight mechanism triggered by the amygdala.

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The amygdala also plays a role in anxiety and aggression, making it very important for emotional regulation. This part of our brain also helps with forming memories, particularly those associated with fear or rewarding experiences.

It was in the 1930s that scientists first started doing experiments in the area of human behavior relevant to the amygdala. The experiments involved removing parts of the temporal lobe of monkeys and observing their behavior. The scientists noted changes to the monkey’s personalities, in that they seemed not to display feelings of fear and were incapable of showing aggression.

As we can see, the amygdala plays a big role in regulating our emotions and managing intense feelings like fear, anxiety, and aggression.

Amygdala Hijack

With all the amygdala does, we’d hope it’s easy to keep in good shape, right? Well, unfortunately, it can get hijacked. But just what does that mean?

As we’ve established, the amygdala regulates very intense emotions like fear, anxiety, and aggression. If these emotions get too intense, it can be hard to keep our cool. Feeling these emotions to a severe extent is what triggers a hijack.

Amygdala Hijack

Have you ever had one of those days where every single thing is just going wrong? You’ve spilled your coffee, the train is full, everyone in front of you is walking really slowly, you can’t find what you need in the supermarket, a household appliance has broken, and every single person you encounter has been in the way. That kind of bad day. You try to calm yourself down and continue to breathe, but then one small thing happens that sets you off. Your pen leaks and suddenly you want to quit your job and move to another country.

Obviously, that would be a completely ridiculous overreaction to a bad day, but that is what happens when the amygdala hijacks our brain. We suddenly want to act rashly, and this can be problematic. When we act on intense emotions, we can act in ways we regret. The amygdala hijacks the brain and impairs the prefrontal cortex; the part of the frontal lobe that’s involved in thought regulation. So, when this brain region is hijacked, we struggle to think straight.

Why Parents Are Susceptible

“Mom, can I have something to eat?” “Dad, where’s my math book?” “Mom, can you help with my homework?” “Dad, can I go outside and play?” And so on and so forth with the questions.

Add to those questions the fact that you’re dealing with children who don’t know how to regulate their emotions yet. And your children will have problems in their life which they won’t know how to deal with. As well as that, as parents you will naturally worry about your kids, what they’re doing, and if they are okay.

In addition to your children and their needs, there are going to be other stressors in your life. Whether it’s work, other family members, interpersonal relationships, things happening around the home, we all have some kind of stress in our life. Bad days happen to us all, and stress can build up quickly when you’re a parent.

With parents having to worry about themselves, their kids, and life in general, it’s easy to see how they can get overwhelmed and become more vulnerable to amygdala hijack.

How to Recognize When the Hijack Happens

If we want to stop ourselves from becoming overwhelmed emotionally, we need to understand the signs of amygdala hijack. First off, stop and reflect on how much has been going on. It’s easy to experience burnout because you didn’t realize you were doing too much. Ask yourself, are you working too hard?

When it comes to the feeling of being hijacked by the amygdala, there are physical and emotional signs. You’ll notice your muscles getting tense. This happens as there is more blood flow to your muscles in times of stress to increase your strength in case you need to fight. You will also be breathing faster as your airways expand and take in more oxygen. With these physiological changes, you’ll find you have a burst of energy and feel like you need to do something physical. You’ll also experience a faster heartbeat and find yourself sweaty, especially in the palms of your hands.

When it comes to the emotional response, when you experience the hijack, you’re likely to feel overwhelmed and may act inappropriately or irrationally.

What You Can Do to Stop the Hijack

When it comes to stopping an amygdala hijack, there are some things you can do.

First of all, stop. Take a deep breath. When you’re mad at your kids, try to remember that, depending on their age, they don’t have the life experience or skills necessary to act as maturely as you may want them to. Children will act childish. Try to keep in mind that they’re learning and struggling too.

As you take a breath, count to six. This is enough time for the chemicals in your body to settle. It can also be helpful to get a drink of water. In the time it takes to drink it you may have cooled down.

Try to take a moment to do something else in your head. Do a math problem to engage the rational side of your mind. This will help you to act in a more rational way as that part of your mind will be engaged.

Try a bit of mindfulness too. Take a breath and notice your surroundings. Think of three things you can see, three things you can feel, and three things you can hear. With practice, this will really help you.

Preventing Burnout

The biggest thing you can do to avoid becoming burnt out is to rest. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and take some breaks during the day. Also, be sure to plan some down time in the evenings to help you unwind before going to bed.

Using positive affirmations can help you regulate your emotions too. Try to use positive language, as studies have shown that positive words have a positive effect on the brain.

In Summary

The amygdala is an important brain region involved in emotional regulation, but when it hijacks the brain we can act irrationally. Make sure you know the signs of the hijack so you can stop yourself doing something rash!

About The Author

NeuroGym Team

NeuroGym Team: NeuroGym’s Team of experts consists of neuroscientists, researchers, and staff who are enthusiasts in their fields. The team is committed to making a difference in the lives of others by sharing the latest scientific findings to help you change your life by understanding and using the mindset, skill set and action set to change your brain.

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