Anger: Managing the amygdala hijack

One of my clients (“Bob”) has had numerous bad experiences with opposing counsel.  Over the last few years, he’s felt more and more worn down by angry phone calls, disingenuous arguments, and general incivility.

(A sidenote: a question we addressed is whether Bob is really surrounded by opposing counsel out to gain some advantage by making him and/or his clients miserable.  Viewed with a dispassionate perspective, the answer was no.  The lesson?  Always step outside your own life and observe.  This perspective will let you recognize whether your day-to-day judgments are well-founded or whether they’re being colored by something else.)

One opposing counsel (“Fred”) was particularly nasty.  Bob had been litigating against Fred for just over a year, and he had recognized that Fred’s strategy was to make him angry.  So, each time he had to interact with Fred, he braced himself and prepared for something outlandish.  But there was one particular tactic that really drove Bob over the edge.  The tactic itself doesn’t matter — let’s say it was being accused of unprofessional conduct — and each time Fred would use this tactic, Bob would become enraged.  To his credit, he was able to manage that anger reasonably well, but enough was revealed that Fred knew he’d found the “right” weapon.  All Fred had to do was use a few choice words, and Bob would become ballistic.  He described a tingling sensation throughout his body, the awareness that his blood pressure had spiked, and great difficulty with remaining engaged on the topic at hand.

What Bob experienced is an “amygdala hijack.”  The amygdala is the “fight or flight” and emotional memory part of the brain. Its job is to protect by comparing incoming data with emotional memories. An amygdala hijack occurs when we respond out of measure with the actual threat because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat. For instance, the amygdala will react similarly to the threat of being eaten by a tiger (physical threat) and the threat of an ego attack (emotional threat) by bringing on the fight or flight reaction.

When one experiences an amygdala hijack, the amygdala overtakes the neocortex (the thinking part of the brain) and there’s little or no ability to rely on intelligence or reasoning.  The effect is that energy is drawn exclusively into the hijack.  The immediate result of a hijack is a decrease in working memory.  Adrenaline is released and will be present and effective for 18 minutes, and other hormones are released into the bloodstream that will take 3-4 hours to clear.

Randy Chittum, an executive coach on the faculty of Georgetown’s leadership coaching program, has recommended the following steps to deal with an amygdala hijack:

Stop.  Stop whatever you’re doing.  Bob’s strategy was to put the call on hold or to step out of the room for a minute; if that was impossible, he would go silent for a moment and identify for himself what had just happened.  (“Ah, Fred just said again that I’m unprofessional.”)   This step keeps the neocortex engaged and can prevent the amagdala’s takeover.

Oxygenate.  Breathe deeply, with intention and purpose.  This step also keeps the neocortex engaged.

Strengthen appreciation.  It’s difficult to have two emotional experiences at the same time, and appreciation counters the hijack.  While it’s especially effective to appreciate the source of the hijack (i.e., for Bob to appreciate Fred as a person, to appreciate his zealous representation of his client, etc.), any appreciation of anything will be helpful.  Not surprisingly, Bob found it difficult to appreciate Fred, so he would instead think about his family and bask it his appreciation of his wife and children.

Survey the landscape.  After the hijack, spend some time exploring what happened and why.  Recognizing the trigger will allow you to avoid being triggered in the future.  After a recognizing that Fred tended to trot out the accusation of unprofessional conduct when he didn’t get an extension or some other accommodation, Bob was prepared.  He knew that his work had been successful when Fred one day expressed his surprise at Bob’s lack of professionalism, and Bob was able to laugh and respond, “Come on, Fred, we both know that isn’t true and isn’t the point.  Feel free to make your motion, but I can’t consent to another delay in this case.”

7 replies
  1. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Thanks for this terrific post, Julie. You touch on the mind-body connection so well.

    When working with clients in such similar circumstances, we learn to ask ourseves, “How old do I feel?” One’s emotional reaction is most often a pointer to one or more similar childhood experiences, the residual of which the individual has brought (in memory and in body) into adulthood.

    So, when someone pushes this button, the adult reacts in a “child-like” fashion (albeit unconsciously unless s/he has done the work on this and is “conscious” of this psychodynamic in the moment ).

    In our work, when one senses into the body to allow the emotion (not fend it off, not “think” it away, not fake it til you make it), but go through it, allow it, not judge it as bad or wrong, in the moment, breathe, move the body…one’s Core, or True Self, will begin to be accessed (not the mind-brain) to give the individual what is needed in the moment, i.e, strength, courage, will, discipline, compassion, and bring one back to a “real adult” energetic self that can respond rather than react.

    In just about every interaction, most folks are at some place on this “adult-child” continuum (unconsciously). When one is conscious of where they are, and why, they can be with their emotions, sense their body, move “inside”, the result of which is their interactions and exchanges can be more open, honest, adult, mature, and respectful and less reactive, “violent”, uncivil, bullying etc.

    When two “children” in adult bodies, wearing adult clothes, are at odds, feeling defensive, feeling small, feeling unsafe, feeling deficient (albeit, again, unconsciously), mature behavior is almost an impossibility…thus what underlies so much of our incivility in discourse today.

    Great post and suggestions, Julie. Thanks.

  2. bintheredonethat
    bintheredonethat says:

    How often do we look back at ourselves and say, “yep, fell for that one” – I wonder if this strategy could be used more widely – reflexive practice?

  3. Julie Fleming Brown
    Julie Fleming Brown says:

    Peter, thanks for sharing your observations about the adult-child continuum. What you say makes a great deal of sense, and I particularly appreciate the suggestion to experience the feelings and to move through — not around — them to get to the core. It would be a rather different world, I suspect, if more of us would practice that approach!

  4. Julie Fleming Brown
    Julie Fleming Brown says:

    Stephanie, thank you for sharing your and Jeff Schwartz’s article! Tip #5 is terrific (as is the rest of the article) and I especially appreciate the suggestion to practice “mental note-taking” on a regular basis. That would certainly support identifying and naming the trigger as well as the emotion it provokes. Thanks for adding some neurobiological back-up.

  5. Julie Fleming Brown
    Julie Fleming Brown says:

    Bintheredonethat (and haven’t we all!), your point is well-taken. Reflective practice performed on a regular basis (which is what I’m assuming you mean by suggesting reflexive practice) would certainly strengthen the ability to circumvent the hijack and, better yet, to avoid being triggered in the first place. I hope you’ll read Stephanie’s article at, as it supports exactly what you’re saying here.

    Thanks for commenting!

  6. bintheredonethat
    bintheredonethat says:

    ‘reflexivity’ refers the process of engaging in reflection /self-management strategies during the interaction, rather than afterwards – which seems to be what you are advocating without using the terms. The tough part is putting it all together under the spotlight of trial advocacy!

    One of the better papers about ‘reflexivity’ on a quick ‘google’ is this:

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