Unlocking Your Brain's Potential: Taming the Amygdala Hijack
Updated: Oct 19
Written By Joanna Buckland.
Have you ever felt like you're losing your memory, unable to think straight, or questioned what's
wrong with you? If you've experienced these symptoms and medical tests have ruled out physical
causes, your brain may have fallen victim to what psychologist Daniel Goleman coined as an
‘amygdala hijack’. Let's delve into this fascinating phenomenon.
Up to 95% of our daily activities are automated, allowing our conscious minds to focus on specific
tasks. Numerous background processes occur without our awareness, and a significant player in this
autonomic orchestra is the amygdala. This small but powerful region of the brain acts as an internal
alarm system, rapidly responding to perceived threats and initiating a cascade of reactions - all
without our conscious control. When the amygdala detects danger, it essentially presses the ‘alarm button’, triggering a series of physiological responses. This is where things get interesting.
In an emergency, our body’s main objective is to supply oxygenated, glucose-rich blood to your muscles, preparing you for fight or flight. From the brain’s perspective, it’s useful to prioritise the defence system by downgrading others not deemed as critical in an emergency such as:
This is the essence of an amygdala hijack, and it's more common than you might think. The
temporary loss in brain power to our executive functioning has been likened to losing 10-15 IQ
points. It's a sensible analogy when you consider that some of your cognitive resources are
temporarily redirected to deal with the perceived threat.
You might think, but I'm not in any real danger. That's a valid point, but here's where things get
Our brains operate on chemical information. Our senses constantly feed information to our brain,
which, based on electrical charges and chemical signals, regulates bodily functions. However, the
part of the brain responsible for sensing danger doesn't possess the ability to analyse risks. Instead,
it functions like a dial system.
In the 'cool zone', where there's no apparent threat, it's business as usual. Your body starts gearing up for potential challenges when things get more stressful (the amber zone). However, the alarm button is pressed in the red zone, and the body enters a heightened state of readiness.
Here's the catch: the alarm commander in your brain operates in the dark. It doesn't distinguish between stress caused by a
life-threatening situation (like being chased by a dangerous animal) and stress from everyday challenges (such as a looming work deadline). It's all the same chemical information, just in different quantities.
So, the next time you find yourself struggling to think clearly or feeling overwhelmed, remember
that it might be your amygdala taking the wheel. Understanding this fascinating aspect of brain
function can help you regain control and navigate the challenges of modern life with greater
Navigating the Amygdala Hijack: A Personal Journey
As someone who has experience in high-stress industries and demanding project management roles, I am intimately familiar with the amygdala hijack phenomenon. Pressures to perform at work often led me to prioritise work above all else, pushing beyond warning signs and believing it was a badge of honour to dwell in the amber and red zones. I believed that as long as I was succeeding, it was OK, right? But I was wrong. It catches up with us eventually.
Living in these high-stress zones has lasting consequences—stress on the body, burnout, reduced
performance, and health impacts. In 2018, my body said no more. Health issues arose, followed by a series of medical tests that couldn’t find any underlying cause. Only later, I connected the dots to the amygdala hijack's long-term effects.
Recognising stress as the root issue was transformative. I acted fast, embracing exercise, sports, and downtime. These changes paid off. Now, my role is even more demanding. I run a counselling practice and a training organisation and develop strategic projects to tackle barriers to positive mental health but there is a difference. I spot early amber signs and have honed techniques to combat hijacks swiftly, staying in the cool zones and taking immediate action if I approach the red.
I've made it my mission to share these skills, helping others stay focused and in control.
Through five years of refinement, one truth emerged: spotting signs early and taking swift action keeps us at our best—connected, creative, productive, and engaged. Stay tuned for our burnout survival guide next month to help you spot the signs early and prevent a system hijack.