Amygdala Hijackings

Started by Kizzie, October 19, 2014, 09:27:08 PM

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Here's a section for our Glossary that hopefully will prompt some discussion.  And if you have any suggested changes to the draft please add that in as well.


Definition: The Amygdala is a small region of the brain which plays a key role in emotional regulation, emotional memory and responses to emotional stimuli.  An "amygdala hijacking" is a term first used by Daniel Goleman to describe immediate and intense emotional reactions which are out of proportion to the triggering event, and which take over the cognitive areas of the brain; feelings are ramped up while thinking is slowed.   

Description: The amygdala is the instinctive and reactive part of our brain that produces lightning-fast emotional responses to events which may be positive (i.e., events that cause us to feel a surge of delight, joy or excitement), or negative (i.e., events that cause instant fear, anger or rage).

This ability to react quickly and instinctively to negative events plays a critical function in our survival, but in the case of CPTSD the amgydala becomes over-reactive and hyper sensitive due to ongoing trauma. Thus, when someone with CPTSD perceive danger or threat, their amgydala triggers more quickly and intensely  than other people, especially when faced with the possibility of a trauma inducing situation similar to what occurred in the past (e.g., childhood abuse and neglect). Once the amgydala triggers, it often produces an emotional flashback in which the feelings from past trauma are layered on top of the feelings elicited by the present day situation, and causes a defensive reaction (i.e., fight, flight, freeze or fawn).   

What an Amygdala Hijacking feels like:  "Amygdala hijackings" override our ability to think and reason for certain periods of time depending on the intensity of our reaction, and often strand us in what Pete Walker describes in his book "CPTSD: From Surviving to Thriving" (2013) as overwhelming feeling states or emotional flashbacks:

"You feel little, fragile and helpless. Everything feels too hard. Life is too scary.  Being seen feels excruciatingly vulnerable. Your battery seems to be dead. In the worst flashbacks an apocalypse feels like it will imminently be upon you.  When you are trapped in a flashback, you are reliving the worst emotional times of your childhood" (p. 145).

Additionally you may feel quite shaky, highly anxious and frightened and have difficulty thinking clearly. You may feel the need to hide or isolate yourself, and to numb or distract yourself.

What NOT to Do

  • Don't try and stuff the feelings down, this is likely to increase their intensity
  • Don't self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, this only provides short term relief and may lead to addiction
  • Don't try and go it alone, isolate or hide from others
  • Don't think this will go on forever, it will subside

What TO Do

  • Use Pete Walker's  "13 Steps for Managing Emotional Flashbacks" to alleviate your symptoms. See
  • Reach out to others including your physician and/or therapist and let them know what is going on and ways they can help
  • Drink fluids and rest; the amygdala kicks out a lot of chemicals such as adrenalin and these stay in your system for a few days
  • Try to identify what triggers you and avoid these if possible
  • Work through past trauma with a therapist and on your own so that there is less fuel to trigger the amgydala
  • Use cognitive behavioural therapy techniques to engage thinking and balance off feelings
  • Practise healthy self-soothing or calming techniques such as mindfulness, meditation or yoga

•    "13 Steps for Managing Emotional Flashbacks" by Pete Walker. Available:
•   "What Was I Thinking? Handling the Hijack" by Dr. R. Nadler (2009). In particular see the section "The Emotional Audit" pages 5–6. Available:


For me this explains so much about  that disorienting feeling of having shot into some other dimension.  I haven't had a big EF for a while but if/when I do I'm going to try some of the advice in the second resource ("What was I Thinking?") about trying to get cognition/thinking reactivated and back in play to balance out the overwhelming emotional responses in an EF.


Saw this and was surprised no one had any comments.  I have a some knowledge about this from a different perspective.  That of being an alcoholic.

It is widely believed now that alcoholism and addiction are are linked to imbalances in the brain's chemistry.  How these imbalances got there is the old argument "nature or nurture".  The amygdala region is the in the first part of the brain to evolve.  As Kizzie said it deals with instinctive responses. 

The amazing thing is that once electrons starts firing in the amygdala the response goes straight to doing.   ie we don't think it over, reason about it.   We don't use our frontal cerebral cortex (our logical brain).   The message never gets there, the electrons don't get there.  The information has literally been hijacked by the amygdala.

There have been brain scans done on cocaine addicts that clearly show this type of electrical activity (thinking).

For alcoholics, one the idea of having another drink hits, its a done deal, there is no reasoning going on or any chance of it going on.  The idea is not going any further than the amygdala and the appropriate response to save your life!

One chemical that features in this region of the brain is "GABA".  A synthetic form of GABAb is Baclofen which is being used off label to treat addictions.  It worked for me.

I have often thought that this could be very useful with EFs and the other stuff we are dealing with.  When I was on high dose Baclofen I was gregarious, extrovert and feeling.  I wanted to get therapy very much at that time but none was available to me.

One caveat I have is that it does desensitize the whole "flight or fight" thing so if you are in a job or situation where you need to be on you're toes, you should be aware.   Probably not the best way to make your individual world a better place if you decide to give your enemy a chance, and take of your flac jacket with the intention of walking up to him and putting a flower in the end of his gun!


Hey Morph - I have been on Gabapentin since May for shingles (still have nerve pain so am still on it - 200 mg daily down from 600). It's a seizure med but I read that it is also used foralcoholism. I had been drinking quite heavily before I got shingles, quit and never had cravings although I don't know whether /how much the Gaba had to do with that.  Around the same time as I started it, I also started a new SSRI -- Celexa - and since starting both I have only had one big EF and my Social Anxiety Disorder has quieted. I don't find myself wanting to put flowers in the end of a gun barrel or anything though  ;D

Very interesting! I hope we can gather some more info here about meds.


I have heard of many people who find relief from alcohol cravings by using Gabapentin.  But many more from using Baclofen.  They are both gaba B medicines but baclofen can cross the blood/brain barrier more easily.

By filling up with Gaba B you decrease your level of anxiety.  Maybe a chemical your brain is deficient in due to nature or nurture.

Baclofen is also an anti spasmodic which has been predominantly used by patients with Multiple sclerosis (MS) for several decades.  It is only recently that its effectiveness on anti craving has come to light.  I would say that its main use now is 'off label' by alcoholics.

Aside from the normal caveats, I'm not a Dr.; Medicines should be taken with professional supervision; etc.  I could suggest that the ideal scenario to take baclofen would be if you are in a trustful relationship with a competent T but are having trouble moving forward.  A lot of inhibitions will be lifted and you would definitely get a new perspective on things.   Trouble is; as with most psyche meds, it can take months to start to work and the dosage for this application is very subjective.  From 30 to 400 mg/day. The maximum dose for spasmodic application is recommended at 80 mg/day (may have been recently reviewed to 100 mg).

Personally I increased my dose to 240mg at which time I had no desire to drink.  This was 4-5 years ago.  I am presently taking 50mg daily as a maintenance dose. At this level I do drink, more than most people, however I don't have the burning need to get drunk every night and blackout at least a couple of times a week!


Thank you for sharing this Kizzie.

Explains what I have been going through as I wrote in another thread.

I saved the following

"You feel little, fragile and helpless. Everything feels too hard. Life is too scary.  Being seen feels excruciatingly vulnerable. Your battery seems to be dead. In the worst flashbacks an apocalypse feels like it will imminently be upon you.  When you are trapped in a flashback, you are reliving the worst emotional times of your childhood"

because it expains why I am always literally on my toes and will jump and run before anyone knows what is going on.  For example DH and I were in the garage and the fire alarm went off -house on fire huge trigger - I literally jumped and ran so fast I was not sure what was going on I felt airbound as if I was flying while pumping my legs like the cartoons.  Turned out to be stuff on the stove boiling. 

Now I understand it is a layered flashback I was wondering what that means as I read it in another thread.


Loved the articles.  In December, my norepinephrine level was triple the top limit and my doctors were concerned that I had a tumor on my adrenal glands.  At that time, I was heavily dealing with my mother's death and new memories surfacing.  Although my doctors have yet to call me, I got the results and it is not a tumor--it simply was physical verification of this process.

Very intriguing. 


It is quite validating to have biology and hard science corroborate our feelings.  Interesting.


Oh my gosh! When I first read emotional flashbacks on here I thought it was in reference to some visual memory. No, emotional memory! This is my life. I thought I was over and past the victim mind set, but I am having anger all the time b/c I feel wronged, left out, emotionally isolated. Oh my gosh. This was a big moment of clarity for me. Thank you for posting this.