One of the main, and most problematic, symptoms that those with borderline personality disorder (a disorder strongly associated with childhood trauma) suffer from is the experiencing of disproportionately intense emotional responses when under stress and an inability to control them or efficiently recover and calm down once such tempestuous emotions have been aroused. This severe symptom of BPD is also often referred to as emotional dysregulation.
The main theory as to why such problems managing emotions occur is that damage has been done to the development of the brain region known as the amygdala in early life due to chronic trauma and, consequently, this area of the brain having been overloaded and overwhelmed by emotions such as fear and anxiety during early development causing a long-term malfunction which can extend well into adulthood or even endure for the BPD sufferer’s entire lifespan (in the absence of effective therapy).
The damage done to the development of the amygdala means that, as adults, when under stress, BPD sufferers are frequently likely to experience what is sometimes referred to as an emotional hijack or, as in the title of this article, an amygdala hijack.
What Is ‘Amygdala Hijack’ And How Does It Prevent Emotional Calm?
The term ‘amygdala hijack’ was coined by the psychologist Daniel Goleman in his book entitled: ‘Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than I.Q.’
When external stimuli are sufficiently stressful, the amygdala, in effect, ‘shuts down’ the prefrontal cortex (the prefrontal cortex is responsible for planning, decision making, and intellectual abilities).
In this way, when a certain threshold of stress is passed (and this threshold is far lower in BPD sufferers than the average person’s) the amygdala (responsible for generating emotions, particularly negative emotions such as anxiety, fear, and aggression) essentially ‘takes over and ‘overrides’ the prefrontal cortex.
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As such, the prefrontal cortex ‘goes offline’ leaving the BPD sufferer flooded with negative emotional responses and unable to reason, by logic or rational thought processes, his/her way out of them.
Different Brain Routes Galvanized In Response To Stress:
To go into slightly greater detail, when information enters our sensory system (via taste, touch, vision, hearing, or smell) then, under normal circumstances that information:
- TRAVELS FIRST TO THE BRAIN’S THALAMUS, THEN TO THE NEOCORTEX (THE RATIONAL PART OF THE BRAIN), AND THEN TO THE AMYGDALA (THAT GIVES RISE TO AN EMOTIONAL RESPONSE).
However, in threatening circumstances:
- THE THALAMUS SENDS SENSORY INFORMATION TO BOTH THE NEOCORTEX AND THE AMYGDALA AND IF THE INFORMATION IS PERCEIVED AS THREATENING, THE AMYGDALA RESPONDS ALMOST INSTANTANEOUSLY AND, CRUCIALLY, BEFORE THE NEOCORTEX HAS AN OPPORTUNITY TO ENGAGE
When the amygdala is ‘hijacked’ in this way, there are three main signs. These are :
1) An intense emotional reaction to the event (or external stimuli)
2) The onset of this intense emotional reaction is sudden
3) It is not until the BPD sufferer has calmed down and the prefrontal cortex comes ‘back online’ (which takes far longer for him/her than it would for the average person) that s/he realizes his/her response (whilst under ‘amygdala hijacking’) was inappropriate, often giving rise to feelings of embarrassment, humiliation, guilt, remorse, and regret.
Specific symptoms of an amygdala hijack, caused by the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline that are both produced by the adrenal gland in response to stress. The release of these hormones prepares us for fight/flight in response to a real or perceived threat (our intake of oxygen increases, our heart beats faster, our blood sugar increases to provide us with more energy and our pupils dilate to improve our vision).
Unfortunately, amygdala hijack can lead to extremes of behaviors that are irrational and ‘out-of-control which, once the person has calmed down, then give rise to regret, embarrassment and shame.
Dealing With An Amygdala Hijack
Because the amygdala hijack can cause automatic, unhelpful behaviors in response to certain triggers it is necessary, in order to stop this happening, consciously engage our prefrontal cortex in response to such triggers before the amygdala has the opportunity to fully assert itself. Engagement of the prefrontal cortex is so important because it is the part of the brain that allows us to think logically and rationally.
Also, if we feel the symptoms of an amygdala hijack starting to become apparent (increased heart rate, sweating, hyperventilation, etc.) we can perform breathing exercises, meditation, and mindfulness.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).