How Do You Recover From Emotional Hijacking?

Article Contributed by Guest Author Betty Mahalik

You’ve most likely heard the term “emotional hijacking” (or “amygdala hijacking”), coined by Dr. Daniel Goleman to describe what happens when a person’s emotions become overwhelming, causing them to “flip out.”  Such an episode can result in physical, mental and emotional damage to both the person experiencing the hijacking, and others who might be watching or be the victim(s) of such an episode.

It starts with a triggering incident, often something relatively minor in the grand scheme of things:  a driver that cuts you off in traffic, a petulant teenager, or an employee who fails to follow directions.  The incident sets in motion an emotional and physiological “runaway train” that can cause serious damage to your health and relationships.

The thoughtless words, the negative comments, the temper tantrum may produce emotional scars that never go away.  Virtually everyone has had one of these adrenaline-fueled fits where we feel powerless to control the emotional tidal wave.

But we aren’t powerless!  We can learn to circumvent our emotional outbursts and safely “dispose” of the negative emotions in healthier ways.  Here are seven ways to recover from an emotional hijacking:

1)    When your emotional trigger gets tripped, stop as soon as possible.  That’s right stop!  Stop your rant, stop your mental terrorist attack on the situation. Stop!  I don’t mean to stop driving if you happen to be.   But if your meltdown is happening in the car, stop focusing on anything but the matter at hand—driving.

2)    Take some deep breaths.  Breathing calms the emotions and simultaneously the mind.  Deep breathing is a known antidote to the adrenalized, heart-pumping fight-or-flight response brought on by an emotional hijacking.  Practice it often and always when the rush of emotions threatens to overtake you.

3)    Count to 6.  Growing up you probably heard the old adage to count to is 10.  Turns out there’s a lot of truth in that. Researchers have discovered it takes about 6 seconds for the response to a triggering event to move from the fight or flight center in the brain to the pre-frontal area where rational thought takes place.  Count to at least 6 before saying a word or taking an action and you may just save yourself from going over the edge.

4)    Put yourself in “time out.” If possible change your physical location.  Go someplace quiet where you can down-shift and work through some of the other steps.

5)    Ask yourself what the real problem is, or how best to solve or address the issue you’re facing.  You may realize it’s only a problem because you’re making it one.  Trying to “prove” that another driver is a jerk, for example, will be a futile and possibly dangerous endeavor.  Besides, allowing the stress-induced fit to continue robs you of brain power. According to one research study, allowing your emotional reactions to run rampant can cause you to temporarily lose up to 15% of your cognitive thinking ability!

6)    After the incident, concentrate on calming down even further.  If possible stop your activity completely and repeat numbers 2, 3, and 4 until calm and reason return.  You’ll be doing others as well as your nervous system a huge favor by taking the time to physically, mentally and emotionally regain your balance.  The stress from an emotional hijacking can have a serious effect on your physical health so taking the time to “de-tox” is well worth it!

7)    Finally, have a short internal command you can issue when you feel yourself losing it.  Good possibilities are “Calm down!” or “Pause!”  Silly and simple as it sounds, just telling yourself mentally to calm down or pause can interrupt the emotional flood long enough to regain your composure.

Now take a deep breath and reflect on the words of this Chinese proverb: “If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.”

2 Responses to “How Do You Recover From Emotional Hijacking?”

  • Virg Setzer:

    Betty – your article – your 7 Ways are excellent. Very well done.

    I do have a couple of suggestions that might be helpful – at least they have been for me.

    First of all although Count to 6 is wise – for me personally and often for people I have worked with – Sometimes Count to 16 may be a better choice.

    A couple additions: Bite Your Tongue – and I mean that literally – I have in fact learned that when my extreme emotional trigger takes over, I must shock myself to gain control – and the physical action of biting my tongue does just that.

    Finally, one that I used with myself and with clients is to ask yourself the question – What impact am I having on the other person(s) and what impact am I having on the business? This is a powerful question – but it is more of a secondary question to ask once you have taken other actions, i.e. counting, breathing, etc. to gain some emotional control.

    You did a great job with your seven ways – hopefully my comments will supplement your thoughts.


  • Hello Betty,

    Great practical advice and steps on walking through emotional challenges. I will refer your article to a great many people I know that struggle with emotionally-charged situations. So, thank you much for that.

    In the sprit of virg’s comment in supplementing your thoughts and further, for anyone looking to improve their emotional self-awareness skills and navigating the emotions within a relationship a bit better, a trick I learned -and use myself- especially in very challenging situations…

    * Sit with the tips of your middle finger and thumb pressed firmly together. Do this with both hands simultaneously. You can easily do this technique with your hands resting gently in your lap, making the technique not at all obvious to anyone but yourself. The benefit is that pressing these two points together creates an energetic closed circuit so that you give yourself, in that moment, the advantage of only processing your own emotions without empathically taking on those of anyone else involved in the challenge. This is especially helpful for those of us that are naturally attuned to the emotions of others and in enforcing a necessary boundary without adding to a potential escalation of further chaos.

    Try it, I find it to be very effective in also helping with personal awareness and setting appropriate intentions for my own relationship with myself. It’s an interesting process that seems to slow down the situation without saying a word.

    Again, great article, thank you for sharing!