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Amygdala Hijacking: A Major Threat to Recovery – Part 2

Amygdala Hijacking: A Major Threat to Recovery – Part 2


Amygdala hijacking occurs when the amygdala, or the emotional center of our brain, overrides the neocortex which serves as the neurological center for rational thought processes. A hijack occurs when the amygdala perceives, based on past experience, that a situation poses a serious threat to our safety and well-being. The classic fight, flight, or freeze response takes over and our ability to process the situation in a detached and rational manner goes out the window. Unless we are able to avert a full-blown hijack we will most likely respond in a highly illogical and aggressive manner. This can wreak havoc on our relationships with family, friends, and co-workers, and significantly impair our overall functional capabilities. 

Collier observes that conditions such as anxiety, depression, impulsiveness, and post-traumatic stress disorder are suspected of being linked to abnormal amygdala functioning (n.d.). This linkage is most likely a consequence of brain damage, impaired development, or a neurotransmitter imbalance. As these conditions are prevalent among many practicing alcoholics and drug abusers, many people presenting themselves for treatment will be prone to amygdala hijacking. This will be particularly true during the post-acute withdrawal period, described by Gorski as ranging from six to eighteen months following initiation of sobriety (1982). It therefore behooves counselors and therapists working with alcoholics and addicts to be sensitive to the proneness of many of these clients to highly aggressive outbursts, and to be able to initiate appropriate interventions. That will be the focus of this final installment in this series.

Pointers for Effective Intervention

The goal of intervention is to help the client curb this destructive behavior by learning to identify an impending amygdala hijack and head it off at the pass. As it takes only six seconds for a hijack to kick into full gear, your client must learn how to instantly intervene and return control to his or her rational capabilities (Exceptional Veterinary Team, 2010). This is crucially important, as once a hijack sets in it can take up to four hours for our brain activity to return to normal (Nadler, 2009).

As the window to head off a hijack is extremely brief, your client must learn to immediately identify an impending highjack in order to avoid a potentially destructive outburst. In my own case, I have learned to immediately catch myself when I begin to raise my voice with someone and to then initiate appropriate action to break the cycle.  Many others have learned to identify bodily signals as markers, such as rapid breathing, accelerated heart rate or tension in their neck, shoulders, or forehead.

Once your client has identified that a highjack is coming on it is imperative that they immediately take six deep breaths to calm themselves down. Remember, it only takes six seconds for the hijack to escalate out of control.  

The immediate goal is to detach oneself from his or her immediate response, calm down both physiologically and emotionally, and return to a rational perspective. In a business situation it may be appropriate to say something like “Wow—that really pushed my buttons! I need to take a moment to calm down and gather my thoughts.”   

In a more personalized setting, such as during a discussion with one’s spouse or another relative or close friend, one may opt to state “I’m feeling agitated and I need to take a momentary ‘time out’.” Then, he or she should immediately retreat to process both the situation and the highly charged thought processes that were triggered.  

When we are able to identify what triggered our agitated state and why this made us so upset, we can then focus on defusing our hyper-exaggerated emotional response. When I sense that I am about to “blow up” at my wife, I’ll either call a time out or respect her request for space and retreat to my office. If we opt to take a time out, it is critically important that we make good use of that time. For example, after retreating to my office I find it helpful to take some more relaxing breaths while shifting my attention to the relaxing scenery outside my window. We then need to try to view what happened as objectively as possible. This admittedly is not easy when our anger has been aroused. I find it helpful to try to put myself in the other person’s shoes and attempt to view the situation from their perspective. We also need to focus on reestablishing harmony with the other person. One technique that I find helpful is to imagine the infinite love from my higher power flowing from my heart to the person I’ve offended.

In addition to the above described self-processing (writing it out may be helpful), processing an amygdala hijack episode with a trusted therapist, counselor, or sponsor is highly recommended.

Intervention within a Wellness-Oriented Context

Viewed from a holistic perspective, actively encouraging your client to adopt a wellness-oriented lifestyle is critically important in effectively dealing with amygdala hijacking, as well as in strengthening your client’s overall resilience and ability to enjoy high quality, lasting sobriety. Nutritional imbalances accompanying an addictive lifestyle often carry over to recovery, posing a serious threat to one’s prospects of attaining and maintaining quality sobriety. Referral to a nutritionist experienced in working with people in recovery can be extremely helpful as and adjunct for all clients with alcohol and drug abuse disorders—this is especially true with clients who act out in a highly agitated manner. It is particularly important that your clients receive counsel on avoiding or minimizing nutritional stressors in their daily food intake. This is particularly true with sugar, caffeine, and highly processed foods. 

Practicing meditation and mindfulness is also very helpful in taking the edge off day-to-day stresses, thus reducing the likelihood of aggressive acting out. Adopting regular exercise and effective sleep hygiene practices also plays an important role in promoting optimal health and serenity in recovery. Each of these topics is covered in detail in my book The Wellness-Recovery Connection.

I hope these pointers may be helpful to you in addressing the needs of clients who are prone to highly agitated amygdala hijacking. As always, feel free to share these thoughts with your clients.

To your health!


Collier, S. (n.d.). Effectively Stabilize Your Emotions: Don’t Let Your Amygdala Hijack Your Brain. Retrieved from http://www.creativepathtogrowth.com/effectively-stabilize-your-emotions-dont-let-your-amygdala-hijack-your-brain/

Exceptional Veterinary Team. (2010). Retrain Your Brain to Learn from an Amygdala Hijack. Retrieved from http://www.myevt.com/news/retrain-your-brain-learn-amygdala-hijack 

Gorski, T. T. and Merlene, M. (1982). Counseling for Relapse Prevention. Independence, MO: Herald House/Independence Press.

Nadler, R. (2009). What Was I Thinking? Handling the Hijack. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/51483/handling-the-hijack.pdf 

Newport, J. (2004). The wellness-recovery connection: Charting your pathway to optimal health while recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.