Have You Been Hijacked?


Saturnino P. Javier, MD, FPCP, FPCC, FACC

Dr. Saturnino P. Javier is an interventional cardiologist at Makati Medical Center and Asian Hospital and Medical Center. He is a past president of the Philippine Heart Association (PHA) and past editor of PHA’s Newsbriefs

For comments, spjavier2958@yahoo.com

What drives a soft-spoken, loving husband to smash his fist on a television set during a heated confrontation? Or what drives a highly educated professional to hit another driver’s face in a fit of road rage? Or what pushes a top-level executive to suddenly slap an employee for a remark made? How many times have we come to that point – when we just could not imagine why we did what we did, or why we reacted in a manner that surely could have been handled more professionally, more kindly?

Ah, all those moments of heightened rage, illogical behavior and disproportionate response must have haunted some of us – at one point in our lives – with regret, guilt or shame. Well, one could always argue that he was ‘hijacked’? Or more specifically, ‘amygdala-hijacked’.

Coined by Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book “Emotional Intelligence,’ the term ‘amygdala hijack’ describes the violent or volatile reaction one develops in response to a situation.

In an angry outburst or an intensely heated moment – between husband and wife, or employer and personnel, or player against opponent, the eyes, ears or other senses send the distress signal to the part of the brain called the thalamus. From the thalamus, a part of the stimulus is sent to the amygdala which is another component of the limbic system, bypassing the neocortex (or the ‘thinking brain’).

As explained in most literature on this matter, it is conjured that the brain is considered to have an emotional part – the amygdala which is located in the lower brain, and the thinking part (the control center called the prefrontal cortex) in the upper brain.

The amygdala consists of nerves that monitor for dangers or threats to our lives. It is also a part of the emotional center that stores data on our emotions. Under usual circumstances, the cortex controls the amygdala. But when the brain detects existing danger or threat, the latter reacts faster than the cortex.

If the amygdala recognizes the stimulus as one that needs an immediate ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response, the chemical adrenalin is instantly released, leading the person to react aggressively, destructively or even violently to the perceived threat. It takes over. It hijacks the brain. It is the survival mode that dictates it to control the brain. That is when one acts out of character, out of the usual mode, with no restraint and control. One has just had an ‘amygdala hijack’.

After the irrational outbursts, angry ranting, the inappropriate and regrettable responses, and the eventual self-realization with remorse and shame, we ask the universal question – “what was I thinking?” The answer is very simple – we were not.

Dr. Randy Stewart, in his blog, wrote that this sudden and uncontrolled outburst or overreaction is actually one where the rational or the thinking mind stopped working. He cites three signs of a hijack – the realization that the reaction was out of proportion to the cause, a realization afterwards that the reaction was inappropriate, and then followed by regret and often, embarrassment.

Some hijacks can have profound and lasting impacts. During the 2006 World Cup Soccer finals, popular soccer player Zinedine Zidane lost his self-control and head-butted Marco Materazzi in front of more than 28 million viewers around the world. Zidane was kicked out of the game. France lost the game. Despite his apology later, that moment’s hijack caused Zidane’s career to end in disgrace and infamy.

Likewise, when Mike Tyson lost his control and bit Evander Holyfield’s ear in a 1993 boxing match, he lost his boxing license as well. That moment’s hijack cost him three million dollars.

But as Stewart explains, the amygdala can be over reactive and overprotective, which makes it inaccurate. The dangers or threats can be equated with some thoughts in our brain that are equated with some incidents or relationships in our lives and our work. It thus makes a person react explosively or violently when it takes over the brain before it can decide on a more rational plan of action.

Which is why there is wisdom in trying to be aware of our emotions before they take the better part of us. It takes maturity and discipline to let the thinking brain take control always of the emotional brain. It is the same wisdom that is behind the cliché – if you have nothing good to say, just shut up. Or during a heated confrontation, it is always wise to avoid saying or doing anything first, before the situation gets out of hand. That ability to rein in the emotional part of the brain, to allow the thinking brain to take control or to avoid being hijacked is what constitutes emotional intelligence.

That intelligence is lost when one throws a glass of juice all because it had no sugar (a reminder to the brain that some degree of deprivation occurred in the past?) That intelligence is not existent when one bangs a television set in a fit of anger because the wife called you a wimp (because it reminded you of a childhood bully who always called you the wimpy one). That intelligence is lost when you suddenly hit your house help because the polo-shirt had a crease (because your father whacked you in your childhood because you wrecked his perfectly ironed-white shirt?)

All these however cannot be used as an excuse for a behavior gone wild, turned violent, even criminally liable. But while such cannot be excused, they can be explained -whenever they are in the realm of the unplanned, and the unpremeditated. More importantly, the recognition of such phenomenon can enable us to extricate ourselves from potential situations that will drive us to pits of despair, frustration and embarrassment, if not imprisonment.

January 2019 Health and Lifestyle

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