fbpx The Amygdala Hijack
Authored by Bobbi Kochevar on July 28, 2022

It is not uncommon for friends and family to seek my input when it comes to their personal health as my degree in laboratory medicine serves me well when reviewing lab results and translating doctor’s notes. An interesting dichotomy arises when concrete, fact-based science intersects with the unpredictability of human emotion.

Over the years, I have noticed the increased worry, anxiousness, and what-if patterns among my loved ones when it comes to awaiting information from their healthcare provider. Tom Petty may not have been referring to lab results, but it is true that “the waiting is the hardest part.” A high white blood count or unexpected lump may mean something very serious, but it could also be easily explained and with more information, found to be no cause for concern. Yet, despite the panacea of potential explanations and wide range of seriousness of the prognosis, we as human beings tend to dwell on the worst possible outcome. For this reason, doctors often caution their patients against Googling every symptom.

A guiding principle for any provider prior to ordering lab work is to only order the test if the result would change their course of action. Simply put, it is not worth expending the energy, money, or time it will take if the result/path forward will remain unchanged. What if we applied this principle to our personal lives? 

What If We Keep Worrying?

I often think of the times I or those around me have dwelled on the “what ifs” of a situation. Whether it’s you or someone you know, the process can be exhausting. The reality is the degree of worrying we apply in our lives has never and will never impact the outcome—either for the better or worse.

A quote by Mark Twain has always stuck with me: “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, a few of which actually happened.”

Think about it – why would we needlessly put our bodies through the stress created by worrying when it has such a negative impact on us in terms of fear, anger, anxiety, irritability, aggression, lack of appetite, upset stomach, etc. The list goes on and on, but as you can see, none of these are favorable experiences.

In looking at the brain science, the frontal lobes are where reasoning occurs. During times of emotional triggers, our amygdala takes over and makes fight-or-flight decisions. It is here where reasoning goes by the wayside and our amygdala “hijacks” our thoughts. The end result of this hijacking, as psychologist Daniel Goleman explains, inhibits a person’s ability to rationally respond to a threat (perceived or real) and can lead to the person reacting in an intense, emotional way that may be out of proportion to the situation.

Keeping Ourselves Grounded

So how can we regain perspective? Consider this: any time we can engage our senses (touch, smell, taste, sound, or sight) it can bring us back into the current reality. When you feel your emotions ramping up (a good sign of the amygdala hijack), consider these counter measures to re-engage your frontal lobe:

  1. Notice 5 things you can see.
  2. Name 4 things you can hear.
  3. Focus on 3 things you can feel.
  4. Find 2 things you can smell.
  5. Notice 1 thing you can taste.

Give it a try and see if you are successful in taking back the control and disarming your amygdala. It’s a practice of mind over matter and you’ll feel a whole lot better when you step out of your worry and into more balanced state of thinking. 

This blog was contributed by Bobbi Kochevar, Chief Operating Officer for Nexus Family Healing.

Nexus Family Healing is a national nonprofit mental health organization that restores hope for thousands of children and families who come to us for outpatient/community mental health servicesfoster care and adoption, and residential treatment. For over 50 years, our network of agencies has used innovative, personalized approaches to heal trauma, break cycles of harm, and reshape futures. We believe every child is worth it — and every family matters. Learn more at nexusfamilyhealing.org.