How to take control of the Amygdala Hijack!

Your brain is getting hijacked by ancient history, despite millennia of evolution!

You’re a smart person, totally in command of how you come across to other people, fully in control of your behaviour, right?

When you snap at a colleague or loved-one because you’re having a bad day, you’ll quickly say “I didn’t mean it”, but the truth is you got hijacked.

Thing is, the mind and body are closely linked and our reactions to modern day problems still use what Professor Paul Gilbert refers to as our ‘Old Brain’ – the brain that had a simple life as a forager, hunting, keeping the fire lit and protecting the family from danger.

Without highly developed self-awareness, your old brain will merrily keep on hijacking your responses because it can’t tell the difference between your computer not being able to see the printer and you not being able to see where that growling sabre-tooth tiger is.

The prehistoric part of your brain responsible for hijacking your control and preparing the body to act without conscious thought is called the amygdala.

Emotional reactions begin with the amygdala, a part of the limbic system and the part of the brain that acts as an emergency alarm.

Within seconds of being triggered, the amygdala very quickly fires off messages to the body so that it can get physiologically prepared to respond to danger! But what if there is no danger?

In my last article, “What are you hiding?”, I touched on the science around the human brain constantly evaluating our environment to react with ‘fight, flight or freeze’ and how mindfulness can be used to connect us with what’s going on in the body and the physical reactions to stress.

When you sense that your body has responded with fight, flight or freeze, it’s worth developing the ability to understand where the trigger has come from and why it’s affected you.

If you have ever read Professor Steve Peters book, “The Chimp Paradox”, you will have heard about the ‘chimp’. The ‘chimp’ is the brain’s reaction to the amygdala hijack.

“When anger or anxiety is triggered, the amygdala drives prefrontal circuitry; as such disturbing emotions reach their peak, an amygdala hijack paralyzes executive function. But when we take active control of our attention – as when we meditate – we deploy this prefrontal circuitry, and the amygdala quietens.” (The Science of meditation)

Think about that for a minute. “Paralyses executive function” means your ability to actively think and consciously choose a response is switched off.

So, how can you tell you’ve been hijacked?

Here are some likely physical responses:

  • Butterflies
  • Temperature flushes
  • Racing heart
  • Headache
  • Sensitivity to sounds and movement
  • Sleeplessness

And some typical behavioural responses:

  • Lashing out at friends or colleagues
  • Saying something without thinking
  • Doing something that is comforting but bad for you

Most of these responses would be useful if you needed to get ready to defend the cave or fight off a beastie, but not so much when the kids are kicking off or you’ve run out of loo roll.

In fact, the last thing you need is an amygdala hijack preventing you from being able to choose how to respond.

In modern day to day life, an amygdala hijack because of ancient history doesn’t really help.

In the Chimp Paradox, Peters talks about recuperation from the chimp’s reactions and this is where mindfulness really comes into play.

I often refer to mindfulness as a superpower, but it’s a superpower you can learn.

The skill and practice of mindfulness meditation can lead us to becoming aware of our body’s reaction to stressful situations and in turn help us recover faster.

  1. Notice that you are being hijacked!
  2. Take a pause / a step back from the situation / feelings / emotions causing the hijack (sometimes these cannot be seen)
  3. Bring your attention to your body and the sensations you’re experiencing

Within Mindfulness meditation practice, we learn to see and experience fully all our thoughts and the emotions that go with them. By doing this within a meditation practice, our reactive brain begins to calm and to be less inflamed. 

We allow the mind to wander freely, not getting caught up on whether a thought is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, noticing our desire to hold on to certain thoughts (usually the pleasant ones) or wanting to push away and get rid of the thoughts that are unpleasant.

The more you practice, the quicker you can learn to recognise and recover from hijack situations.

Remember, mindfulness can be learned – it’s a skill for life and really helps to avoid your prehistoric brain hijacking responses.

If you’d like to learn more, I run a variety of mindfulness courses, workshops and classes for individuals and organisations. Please get in touch!

Jo Clarke – Inner Space Works
07889 295959

Self Care

Self-care is something that most of us forget about. Our focus and attention tends to goes on other people; our children, friends, family members. Perhaps we have the belief that that other people are in need of our support more than us, or perhaps we find it easier to focus on another person’s problems than to pay attention to our own problems? Unless we take care of ourselves, how can we expect to have the capacity to look after and to help others? We cannot run on an empty fuel tank and we are not invincible, we are human. This can be easy to understand, but difficult to do. So how can we look after ourselves? Taking breaks, taking time out for ourselves, even for a few minutes throughout the day can really help to reset our minds and bodies, allowing us to continue for longer. Do you remember the adverts with the Duracell bunny?  Recharging can be useful and can be done by simply going for a walk, talking to a friend, reading a few pages of a book, whatever healthy and positive activity that you enjoy.


Self-Doubt and Confidence

Many of us suffer from self-doubt, which can lead to a lack in confidence. It’s like the monkey or devil on our shoulder that incessantly tells us “You can’t do that”, “You’re rubbish at that”, “It might not work”, “It’s too risky”. The element of questioning, if used wisely, can give us clarity of thinking, but when the negativity drowns out the positivity, it can be detrimental to our self-esteem, self-worth and confidence.

It will probably come as no surprise that, if in childhood, we are given negative messages by our parents, we begin to question ourselves. This might come in the simple form of not being allowed to question a parent and that the parent is always right, or from continuous nagging and put-downs. Turning the doubt around can be tremendously difficult, but it is possible. If we are gentle and kind to ourselves, we can make space to replace the self-doubt with confidence, so that the things we tell ourselves are positive; “You can do this!”, “You’ve got this!”, “It’s worth a try!”, “You have nothing to lose!”, “Go for it!”

This simple breathing exercise can help us to focus on the positive. When you breathe in, allow your mind to think of all the things you are good at, and when you breathe out, let go of all the self-doubt and negativity. If this feels difficult, try for 5 days, to write down 5 pleasant experiences you’ve had each day. For example, it could be that you went for a coffee with a colleague at lunchtime, or you ate a delicious chocolate bar. If we choose to focus on the pleasant, joyful things in life,  we can learn or re-learn how to feel confident.



Perseverance can help us to overcome the fear of failure. The act of continuing and trying again can increase our resistance to the word fail, or the feeling of failure. As Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers once sang “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again!” We may need to change our thought process from “I can’t” or “There’s no point, it will only fail” to “At least I tried” or “There’s no harm in giving it a go. You never know what might happen”. It may seem like a small change but if we are feeling particularly negative or low, it’s a gentle way of re-wiring. We can unlearn our unhelpful habits in the same way that we learn them, by using positive self-talk. By repeating positive words and thoughts like those above, we can alter and embed a new way of thinking and this can have a positive affect on our state of mind.