August 2022

Do you Fight or Flight?

Why is this question an important one?

Have you ever lost control over your emotions and did something in the heat of the moment that you later regretted? Such behavior is a common human phenomenon and is a very real learned as well as innate response to our environment. Also, important to recognize is that “loss of control over our emotions” can come in many forms. It is not always that we “lose it” or “blow up” at someone—our partner or child, our work colleague, or the driver of another car. “Loss of control over our emotions” can also present with shutting down or withdrawal to “leave the scene” rather than react because this person wants to go away from the moment or flee the moment (flight). What both responses have in common are that they are a reaction to being suddenly impacted by our environment and this triggers FEAR. Yes, FEAR precedes Fight or Flight. It may not feel like Fear, because it may feel like anger or another emotion, but Fight or Flight are preceded by Fear. Whether we shut down or lose it in a situation, it can feel very disorienting and is often associated with a quick response of remorse because we realize that instead of processing the immediate feelings of a sudden emotion, we instead escaped from it (fright and freeze) or over-reacted to it (fright and fight). We have ALL had this happen to us and it is related to a neural circuitry in our brain, named the Amygdala Hijack.

What is an Amygdala Hijack?

Amygdala hijack is an natural response to stress, often misunderstood as losing control over one’s emotions. But in fact, the Amygdala is a part of our brain that is wired for our survival. That part of our brain is often called the Primitive or Reptilian Brain and it is important to know that it is NOT a part of our conscious brain or MIND. This ancient part of our brain exists in all vertebrates (vertebrates have a spine), hence the term Reptilian Brain. It is not connected to our thinking brain, called the cerebrum, which is that part of our brain that is highly developed in humans and responsible for our rational and thinking mind and consequent behavior. I will describe this in further detail later, but let me give you a very common example of Amygdala Hijack by the Primitive Brain:

While we are talking to a friend, she/he “appears” to NOT be listening to us and may even “appear” to ignore us or be talking over us while we are speaking. Sound familiar?? This kind of interaction CAN make the speaker ‘snap,’ into an Amygdala Hijack to either FIGHT or FLIGHT. In “Fight”, we raise our voice at the person, begin to cry or otherwise demonstrate hurt, felt as anger a lot of the time, at our perceived lack of attention to what we are saying. Our response depends critically upon what our unmet needs are in the moment we are talking to the friend and perceive this lack of attention. Why? Unmet needs are immediately processed by our primitive brain as a threat to our survival and the response can be subtle to very strong, depending on the situationThe lack of not being heard is perceived as a FRIGHT – Yes, FEAR of not having our needs met. NONE OF THIS is on a conscious level because remember the Primitive brain is literally not wired to our thinking part of the brain which controls our conscious behavior. This is all a subconscious response. Until we personally acknowledge that this happens normally and that it is natural to have responses to our environment that are learned or inborn (innate) and are related to our primitive brain for our survival, we will not know how to embrace ourselves and create subtle but powerful shifts to manage our environmental responses and learn over time to disengage from our primitive brain to reduce Amygdala Hijack occurrences. I promise to dive into this later. But for now, let’s look at an alternative response to the same perceived lack of attention to what we are saying to a person. Alternatively, in the case of FLIGHT to this exact same scenario, one would get quiet and effectively shut down - seen and felt as a withdrawal, withholding our words of hurt about not being heard. This is also a primitive brain response and learned survival tactic. 

In either scenario, fright and fight or flight, the question is, did you overreact? Who and what was in control of this scenario and just where were YOU? You may be saying to yourself, “but I am not frightened when I am angry or when I withdraw from my feelings.” This may seem like a true statement, except that Fear is a protective response to our environment and may present with anger (an outburst of some type = fight) or withdrawal (being quiet and withdrawing = freeze) and both are very primitive innate (inborn) and over time learned responses to protect us from danger that is not consciously processed by our brain AT ALL. At least not until we learn how to process our world to experience on a conscious level how we process fear. In actuality, when our amygdala hijacks us, we are usually not able to think at all, because there is no conscious thought at the time we react, as our amygdala has hijacked us. What is pivotal to acknowledge is that the ability to rationally behave is lost during an Amygdala Hijack, when this primitive survival response is being triggered.

Another more dramatic and well known classic example of an Amygdala Fright and Fight Hijack is the small woman who picks up the end of a car which is crushing her child. When she suddenly realizes the gravity of the situation and her child will die under the car, in a split second and WITHOUT any conscious thought or conscious effort, she rescues her child using strength that is later perceived of as impossible and superhuman. Again, there is no conscious thought process in an Amygdala Hijack because it is a completely primitive, immediate, urgent, inborn response that all humans and vertebrate (e.g., mammals) have for survival and protection.

The issue with Amygdala Hijack arises when this ancient response is triggered “inappropriately” (– for the record- I have truly learned to loath the word inappropriate-) and the behavior we demonstrate makes no rational sense to those around us or later to you. This brings us full circle to where I began at the beginning of this writing.

In the field of Neuroscience, one of which I am proud to hold a Master’s of Science (MS) – an Amygdala Hijack refers to a situation where the amygdala overrides control of a person’s ability to respond rationally to a perceived threat – the logical brain becomes impaired due to the connection that the event or thought or conceived notion has to their survival and it is instead processed very quickly by the amygdala in our primitive brain. While the amygdala is intended to protect us from danger, it can interfere with our functioning in the modern world where threats are often more subtle in nature and often learned over time. When you see, hear, touch, or taste anything, that sensory information is sent to the amygdala, the “emotional brain” as well as the neocortex, the “thinking brain.” VERY IMPORTANT is: If the amygdala senses danger, it makes a split-second decision to initiate the fight-or-flight response out of fright, BEFORE the neocortex has time to overrule it. This is a programed neuronal response system in place for our survival. DO NOT THINK, ACT! This fight or flight/freeze response triggers the release of stress hormones, including the hormones epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and cortisol.

While many of the threats we face today are not life-threatening, evolutionarily, our brains evolved to deal with physical threats to our survival that required a quick response. As a result, our body still responds with biological changes that prepare us to fight or flight, even though there is no actual physical threat with which we must contend. Chronic stress and certain mental health conditions can also play a role in the functioning of fear circuitry in the brain, which can result in greater chances of amygdala hijacking.

People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example, show greater amygdala activation and therefore, increased emotional responding including fear and anxiety responses.

People with other anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (SAD) and panic disorder may also respond more strongly in their amygdala.

Even without a diagnosis of PTSD or anxiety disorder, chronic stress can lead to an overactive fear and anxiety circuit in your brain, which also reduces the functioning of other areas of the brain that help with inhibition of fear, such as the hippocampus and the medial prefrontal cortex.

All of this means that chronic stress can trigger more frequent amygdala hijacks and even subsequent problems with short-term memory, which is why it is important to work on understanding and taking charge of your emotional reactions. One way to do this is through preventative work. 

Of course, the question arises, so what do we do to manage the response we have to our environment, so that we are comfortable in our own skin many more hours of the day than not. I include sleep in the hours of the day, because our sleep state is another manifestation of our thoughts and emotions simply on a subconscious level and I believe, has just as powerful an effect on our life as our waking hours.

I have decided to create this newsletter in two or maybe even three parts to help the reader integrate what I am sharing.

Learning coping mechanisms and the tools involved with preventative work can positively influence how we respond to our environment and help avoid an amygdala-induced overreaction. These topics as well as a how to better understand your personal mental health will be reviewed in the next newsletter. 

From the Queen of Amygdala Hijack!

want to take a stab at which one :)

Ariane Cometa MD

your holistic doc