Emotional hijacking is a state when an individual's cognitions are overpowered by his/her emotions. It is usually referred to in the context of aggression or fearfulness.

With respect to aggression, it can be said to be a sudden unleashing of rage towards another person. It is an extreme emotional outburst or an emotional explosion caused by an incident that may trigger anger or fear in an individual.

Such incidents happen many a times. There are a number of situations in which a person might get angry or upset and without even thinking about anything he/she might just lose his/her cool and simply explode with emotions and attack the other person verbally or even physically. For instance, an individual might suddenly get extremely angry and begin to shout at his/her friend and even slur him/her. In an extreme case, a disgusted husband might suddenly get upset and beat up his wife badly. In more extreme cases, a person might kill another person with an outburst of anger.

Wife beating and killing a person due to emotional hijacking can be rare, but incidents of individuals quarreling with each other and in the process damaging a relationship are quite common. Such moments do not last very long, but the time that it lasts does enough damage. Most of the times, a person regrets getting into such an act.
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Research shows that such emotional explosions are neural hijackings. In such a moment, a center in the limbic system (a part of the brain), the amygadala, the seat of all emotions in the brain, takes over the neocortex. The neocortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for our thinking. During this moment the neocortex stops functioning. The amygdala gets triggered and in an instant takes control of the brain, in a sense hijacking it. Thus, it is called emotional hijacking.

Emotional hijacking does not occur just like that out of no where. Usually certain past events that are disturbing to the individual keep building up resulting in the sudden emotional outburst. If a person is facing some problems for quite some time, they start playing on the mind and a moment may occur when he/she cannot take it any longer, which may result in the extreme explosion of emotions. A person may be too stressed out, or a person might be a bit angry for something that might have occurred before. In such a moment if something happens that further causes distress, then the chances of emotional hijacking to occur increase to a great extent.

Emotional hijacking takes place in an instant and by the time it gets over it can do a lot of damage to the person in many ways. If emotional hijacking keeps on occurring time and again then, it will have an immediate negative affect on the individual’s ability to have relationships as well as the quality of his/her current relationships. Emotional hijacking occurring too often in a person will give the impression to others of the individual being a loose cannon. People will begin to dislike his/her behaviour and may keep a distance from him/her. Likewise, his/her peers, friends, and others who are close to him/her may begin to dislike him/her, because nobody would like to be at the receiving end of a person’s extreme rage, especially when the person has a close relationship with them.

Emotional hijacking also creates a lot of negativity within the atmosphere. If a person due to an extreme outburst of anger shouts very loudly it has a bad affect on the mood of not only others, but also on the individual himself/herself. Such an emotional outburst is not at all good for the mental and emotional stability of the person. One incident of emotional hijacking can lead to a severe mood swing, so one can imagine what will happen if this happens very often. Such kind of behaviour will also increase the stress level of the person. In extreme cases it can cause high blood pressure and even heart problems. Therefore, emotional hijacking can have a very bad affect on a person’s mental as well as physical health.

Instead of facing the negative consequences of emotional hijacking it is much better to try to prevent it as much as possible. One way to do this is to try to reason and thus challenge the anger provoking thoughts. Emotional hijacking is more of an impulse driven reaction. The person should try to think before he/she reacts in such an aggressive manner and in a way try to hold back that impulse. He/she should try to channelize his/her thoughts to a more rationalistic way and try to bring down the level of anger. This is a very good way to counter emotional hijacking, but it is easier said than done. During an episode of emotional hijacking, a person becomes cognitively incapacitated. He/she almost loses the ability to think at that moment.

The best way to prevent emotional hijacking is to just move away from that place and go for a walk as soon as one realizes that matters can become worse. This works as a distraction from the anger provoking thoughts for the person. The person buys out some time, which helps in relaxation of thoughts and makes the individual calm down. In such a situation the left prefrontal lobe (the front-left side of the brain) of the person comes into being. When the anger provoking thoughts get distracted, the left prefrontal lobe, which is responsible for maintaining emotional balance, works as a counter mechanism towards the amygdala and dampens its affect on the brain. Thus, the person comes back to his/her normal and calm phase and is able to prevent emotional hijacking.

In situations like this, watching television or listening to music can also help in distracting one from anger provoking thoughts and thus make the individual calm down. Distraction from such thoughts also helps the person to get into a more pleasant mood. If a person goes out for a walk, he/she might find the surroundings pleasant, which will have a positive affect on the mood and make him/her happier at that moment. The same thing happens when a person begins to watch television or listens to music at that moment.

Other ways of preventing emotional hijacking is deep breathing and muscle relaxation. This helps in changing the body’s high arousal of anger to a low-arousal state. It also, in a way, works as a distraction from whatever triggered the anger.

It is very obvious that emotional hijacking is a very unpleasant phenomenon.The consequences of emotional hijacking are nothing but bad, be it on mood, relationships, or the overall health of the individual. A person should always try to be in a positive frame of mind and try to be as emotionally relaxed and calm as possible. The more positive frame of mind the person is in the more chances are that he/she will be away from emotional hijacking and the more chances are that he/she will be an emotionally healthy person.

Saif Farooqi

A PhD in Psychology (from the University of Delhi). I have been blogging about psychological issues for more than ten years. I am extremely passionate about teaching psychology. I'm a writer, podcaster, and TEDx speaker. I also conduct workshops and awareness programs in schools and colleges. Currently, I'm also working as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India


Shimmer said...

Wow...quite informative! This really shows us that we should not let disturbing feelings build up inside us! The longer we keep on sulking inside, the higher would be the intensity of our anger when we finally let it go. Thanks :)

Aparna (Life Takes) said...

this is a really insightful post i've ever read!


Anonymous said...

hi Saif,
thanks drop by my blog... your blog talking about psychology... i love it

Unknown said...

Well I am usually quite cool in attitude but its really helpful even then...
btw your comment has been replied...


Anonymous said...

I am reading a very good book called The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness,
Matter and MiraclesAuthor: Bruce H. Lipton, Ph.D.
It's about how positive and negative thoughts affect our DNA.

I can tell you that if an individual stores up negative thoughts of someone long enough it can trigger into rage.
Married couples sometimes resort to killing their spouse over years of stored up hatred to one another.
Something after a while causes one of them to snap and then it's curtains for the other half.

Your post is very interesting, a good read.

Luscious Sealed Lips said...

Did not know it was called Emotional Hijacking.



Saif Farooqi said...

@ Shimmer
yeah, you're right. this is why we should try to be in a positive frame of mind as much as possible. the negative emotions, rather than being built up, should be released soothingly.

@ Aparna
good to hear that you found the post really insightful.

@ Mancai
i'm really glad to know that :)

@ Juenelle
yeah, having negative thoughts about someone for a really long time can prove to be fatal. its always good to talk it out with the other person instead of getting into some regretful act.

the thing that you said about married couples is absolutely right. something causes them to just snap. this is why married couples are always advised to go for counseling when such thoughts of hatred begin to develop, within their mind, for their spouse. it not only helps in saving the marriage but also prevents them to indulge in violent behaviour.

the book that you mentioned sounds to be quite interesting. i'll definitely try to get it some time in the future. :)

@ Luscious Sealed Lips
there are very people who might be knowing that it is called emotional hijacking. despite not knowing what it is called, everyone knows that it is something that is very common and occurs too often.

Jack Payne said...

Good description of "emotional hijacking." Frankly, I didn't even know what it was.

Saif Farooqi said...

@ Jack
Thanks! yeah, the term "emotional hijacking" is something that's not a very familiar one, but its occurrence is quite common and this is what made me to write about it. :)

Ingrid said...

wow, i never knew some of this stuff, very informative post i must say! .. I'm a rather layed back person, but even so this post will really help me out!!! :) Thanks!

And u got a very nice blog going on here, I Must say!


Saif Farooqi said...

@ Ingrid
i'm glad to know that you find this post helpful and informative ...

Business Blog said...

Interesting reading - I was only watching a program last night about anger. Not heard of it called this before, i.e. Emotional hijacking, but I have myself been a vitim of some serious Emotional hijacking myself with an ex-wife that had Borderline Personality Disorder!

Saif Farooqi said...

@ Business Blog
Well, not all kinds of anger are termed as emotional hijacking. Only when the anger gets to an extremely high level of intensity, it is called emotional hijacking.
... and not only you, but i guess almost everybody has, more than once, been a victim of emotional hijacking. It's just that at times the situation gets the better of the person. It is something that's too common.
I also found a slight co-incidence in your comment. Your ex-wife had Boderline Personality Disorder and my friend is doing her PhD on Boderline Personality Disorder.

Unknown said...

can some one mail me more on controlling that..my e mail is drsourabh_kumar@yahoo.co.in because i think i am a case of emotional hizaking...thanks

Unknown said...

Wow, an interesting write up, really informative. one characteristic feature common to most of your blogs is coherence of thoghts. one concept smoothly gives way to the next... Kudos!!

Saif Farooqi said...

@ Dantalion Jones
Glad to know that you have found it to be helpful.

@ Arshiya
Thanks! nice to know about your views :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you! You may have helped save my marriage. No joke. We've been in counseling for nearly two years because of these episodes in my husband. It helps us both very much to see the science behind what happens to his brain at these times. It also helps us understand the behaviors sugggested by our therapist and how we can help each other during/after these times.

Saif Farooqi said...

@ Anonymous
I'm really glad to know that this article of mine has in some way played a role in restoring your marriage.
You're right in saying that knowing the scientific explanation behind a behaviour helps in a better understanding of the it.

Take care and have a wonderful married life! :)

Anonymous said...

Hey saif,

Thanks for the explanation on the emotional hijacking! My boyfriend broke up with me because what I said to him. I couldn't understand why I said such mean words to him and hurt him. That 's not something I would do to anybody but I did it to my dear boyfriend! Lesson learned and eventually i am the one getting hurt. Anyway to get my bf back? I am serious. Thank you!

Unknown said...

Hey Saif, can you say a bit about the fear-based side of emotional hijacking? I find it is often dismissed out of hand because it doesn't usually cause witnesses to feel threatened. I'm thinking of the freeze/flee part of our baser animal instinct, and that these are the chemicals which affect the override of our conscious choice and ability. I'm curious what you think about what it looks like and what kind of damage it can cause. I am thinking of what would archetypically be called the "victim" role.

Anonymous said...

Not sure if its aggression or emotional hyjacking in the way spouse deals with his family. However his responses to us can be over the top body language & facial features.

Unknown said...

Hey! One of your best articles :) Really insightful and informative... Looking forward to many more.. :)

Saif Farooqi said...

Thanks Aakanksha! :)

Jenna said...

Being self aware and distracting yourself from a non-progressive path does work.

Unknown said...

There is so much in this article that I would never have thought of on my own.
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Gwen said...

Walking away calmly does help where possible- telling the person you're taking a break reinforces the respect too.

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