For the most part, we don’t live in emotional consumption. We have tools to regulate it and we’re grateful when it’s over. For youth chronically exposed to toxic stress or trauma who do not have balancing factors of resilience, emotional consumption is exactly where they live. An amygdala hijacking is more than an experience; it’s a way of life.
Have you ever been moving along your day, minding your own (or someone else’s) business, when you’re confronted with…SOMETHING BIG?! In your brain…the sound of screeching brakes, doors being thrown open and yep…that’s Sheer Emotion leaping in. Your regular driver, Frontal Cortex, is shoved ruthlessly into the passenger seat while Sheer Emotion grabs the wheel and takes Body, Mind and Soul on a wild ride. Your heart pounds, time slows down, and coping strategies are triggered. You’re deep in battle (fight), running away (flight), paralyzed (freeze), or searching for the safety of other people (flock together). All of this before you can blink…or think. That is an amygdala hijacking, a phrase coined by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.
Our brains’ grand neuro-design dictates that sensory information enters via sensory inlets (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) and move through specific structures for management: from the thalamus (assessment of touch, pain, temperature) to the amygdala (assessment of threat to survival and emotional processing) and on to the frontal lobes (where reason and logic work). On a normal day with no shocking pain or confrontations, the thalamus and amygdala allow information to pass though like veteran TSA agents at the airport, scanning for threats or alarm. The amygdala paints the information with an emotional hue before sending it along. When it reaches the frontal cortex, the information is dissected, assigned meaning, and potential responses are considered. And while there is certainly an order to this, none of this stands alone. Information zips forward and backward along the brain’s synapses continually updating, refining, and enhancing; information transformed into experience.
However, when a threat is detected by the amygdala, a response is triggered immediately, without a cumbersome trip through the frontal lobes for a vote. Action is taken to preserve life: fight, flee, freeze, or flock together. There’s plenty of time afterward, presuming success, for a logical review and critique of the response. Under the healthiest of circumstances, things return to standard operating procedures fairly quickly. This whole design is actually a pretty good arrangement, well-constructed to give the body the best chances to survive.
Chronic trauma and toxic stress can demand the amygdala’s threat assessment be continuous, and this can delay or confuse the integration of logic and reason for the long-term. For many trauma-exposed youth, the thalamus/amygdala team is less like TSA and more like Navy SEALS. They aren’t kidding around. The team is never really “at ease”. All aspects of the environment are ceaselessly scanned, events and people are microscopically inspected, and the team is 100% prepared to generate a response, seeking little consultation with the frontal lobe. Goleman summarizes it like this, “…the architecture of the brain gives the amygdala a privileged position… able to hijack the brain.”
When you watch a student react to a situation with hostility that’s out of proportion, you’re seeing an amygdala hijacking (fight, even when it’s unnecessary and means a referral to the principal). When you repeatedly notice a faraway look and a disconnect from the environment, you’re seeing it (dissociate [flee] from the classroom in order to stay calm, even when it means you’re missing critical lessons). When you watch a student drift toward other students who also have a history of disrupted, troubled behavior, you’re seeing it (strength and comfort in numbers – flocking). While hijacked, the social and emotional strategies for relief from an overwhelming stimulus have an Alice In Wonderland feel, becoming a convoluted maze leading right back to emotional consumption. Coping that brings with it even higher consequences.
When we’re working with trauma-exposed kids, youth who live in toxic stress, we would serve them and ourselves well by not asking them “what were you thinking?” but rather asking ourselves “what were they thinking with?”. Odds are, when displaying disruptive, impulsive, counter-productive behavior, they were thinking with a hijacker on board.
Realizing that just one person can make a difference in quieting the brain and calming a child, a cultural shift has begun across many disciplines that center around youth. Schools across Humboldt County are developing trauma-informed practices that allow all of school staff, not just teachers, to be part of the reassuring, positive balance for youth exposed to chronic toxic stress. Helping a student cope and bringing that student back into a space where learning is not only possible but enjoyable starts with understanding the processes behind the behavior. It starts with recognizing the hijack.