Sometimes children seem to become overwhelmed by their emotions, often to the extent that they appear not to notice their surroundings, what is happening around them, or what people are saying. You may have heard it described as:
Seeing red. Red Mist. Zoned out. Can't be reasoned with. Having left the planet. Like they weren't there.
There are lots of different phrases that people use. However, what people often really mean when they use these descriptions is that they suspect the person who has become overwhelmed is having an amygdala hijack.
Amygdala Hijack explained:
To understand this, you first need to have an understanding of the two parts of the brain involved: the frontal lobes and the amygdala.
The amygdala is located at the base of the brain. It regulates emotions, store memories, and connect memories to emotions.
The Frontal Lobes:
The frontal lobes are located at the front of your brain. They help with controlled and voluntary processes like thinking, reasoning, planning, and making decisions.
For situations that your brain assesses to be of low threat, the frontal lobes are able to take the time to allow you to make a rational decision. However, for circumstances that your brain feels are more dangerous and need a quick reaction, it often initiates the flight-or-fight response instead.
The fight-or-flight response is crucial for understanding the amygdala hijack. This is an immediate response to a situation that your brain has assessed as potentially dangerous. It will often seem like you responded instantly, without thought. After the event, you may feel that you made an irrational, impulsive, or illogical decision and wonder why you didn't stop to think.
However, it is an automatic process that doesn't require any initiative or decision-making from you. Your amygdala is thought to have disabled or prevented your frontal lobes from making logical decisions. This is why it is called an amygdala hijack; your amygdala has taken control of the decision-making process from the frontal lobes.
When this happens, your brain begins to pump stress hormones so that your body can either quickly escape the situation (flight) or fight the threat. You may have physical symptoms such as a rapid heartbeat, dilated pupils, sweating, rapid breathing, or a surge of energy or strength.
For our ancestors, the fight-or-flight response was crucial for survival; it allowed them to react quickly and decisively in the face of a threat and survive death or injury, which would have been a constant threat as part of their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. However, nowadays, our fight-or-flight response is most often activated by stress, anxiety, or anger. This is often the case in situations at work or at home that do not require such a strong response.
How to manage an amygdala hijack:
As an amygdala hijack happens without your input, it can be very difficult to manage or control it. Children will likely find it particularly challenging. However, there are some things that you can try.
• Try to take note of and acknowledge your physical symptoms. Over time, you may begin to notice your body's responses and gain some control over them.
• Focus on breathing; often, slowing down your breath will slow down your body's response. A good way to support children with this is to get them to draw a box in the air. On one side, hold your breath; on the next side, breath in; on the next side, hold; on the last side, breathe out; then repeat this process.
• For children, try to provide a safe space for them to regulate their emotions. It is often a good idea to remove any objects that may be a hazard and ensure that there is nobody else in the space.
• Prevent it from reaching its peak. Amygdala hijacks usually have a buildup. If you notice that your child is becoming stressed or agitated, try to diffuse it before it reaches the point of an amygdala hijack.
Help children to understand:
Understanding the process of an amygdala hijack is often a helpful first step to supporting children in understanding how to manage their emotions better. The videos below give a lovely, child-friendly explanation:
The flip your lid technique below offers clear visuals and actions for helping children to recognize when they are becoming overwhelmed; helping them to regulate their emotions and manage anger.
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Phelps, E. A., & LeDoux, J. E. (2005). Contributions of the amygdala to emotion processing: From animal models to human behavior. Neuron, 48(2), 175-187.
Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don't get ulcers: The acclaimed guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping. Holt Paperbacks.
Davidson, R. J., Jackson, D. C., & Kalin, N. H. (2000). Emotion, plasticity, context, and regulation: Perspectives from affective neuroscience. Psychological bulletin, 126(6), 890-909.