An emotional hijack is when the rational part of our brain is overtaken by our emotions, and we act impulsively and inappropriately. It might happen to you, or you might see it in colleagues. It’s wearing, isn’t it? Having to put up with all that fallout and bluster while you’re trying to do a job. Have you thought about the impact on those around you when you let rip?

 The emotional part of our brain is called the Amygdala. It controls our ‘fight or flight’ response, and  provides a rush of stress hormones so that we can act quickly – it is a survival mechanism. Think of it as the soldier on duty at the gateway of your brain, alert for danger. The amygdala is very useful if a sabre tooth tiger jumps out at you, but is needed less often in today’s world. Most of the time, especially at work, we are actually safe.

The amygdala responds to things before the rational part of our brain (the neocortex) kicks in and has had time to work out what is really going on. The problem is that it can be sloppy, distorting things so that we react in a way that is out of proportion. Emotions overwhelm logic – we can’t think straight when we’re experiencing strong emotions.

“The human brain hasn’t had a hardware upgrade in about 100,000 years.”  Daniel Goleman said, and he’s right – this response goes right back to times when wild animals were our biggest fear. Unfortunately, our soldier is a bit of a caveman.

 Why this is a problem

  1. catThere isn’t a sabre tooth tiger. You imagined it.
  1. If it happens too often, people will see you as a loose cannon. They will begin to dislike you and may start distancing themselves from you. Your colleagues will feel they can’t trust you – you will damage the company’s reputation. It creates negativity. I recently heard of a guy who invited everyone in a large office to the pub after work for his birthday. Not one person turned up.
  1. It is never ok to unleash negative emotions on colleagues or clients. They will only forgive you so many times. It will damage your career. Home, family, intimate relationships are different – but at work, you are being paid, among other things, to have some self control. I’m resisting the temptation to post a picture of Jeremy Clarkson here.

The good news

You can learn to control how you respond (most of the time). The more you practice, the easier it becomes. You know those calm, collected people? They threw tantrums when they were toddlers the same as the rest of us. They’ve learnt how to react differently. You can too.

What to do about emotional hijack

  • Take a deep breath. Relax your muscles. It only takes six seconds for your rational mind to recover and join in.
  • Tell yourself that you are safe, and it’s going to be ok. Find perspective.
  • Check your thinking and focus. Change your language if you need to. Move your focus if it is not helpful.
  • Ask yourself:
    • “ What emotions am I dealing with?” Labelling emotions is a rational activity – it helps the rational brain kick in.
    • “What do I want right now?” Space? Reassurance? More information? More understanding of another person?
    • “How am I getting in my own way?” Self awareness is key to all learning.
  • Finally – “What shall I do differently? Generate some options or ideas of different ways of handling the situation, then think what outcome each one may have got. This will help you develop coping skills. Talking it through can help here.

Keep repeating these steps until they become a habit.


When has it happened to you?

Thinking 2 Learning comes from reflection, using your rational brain  to analyse what happened, then deciding to do things differently in the future. You might need to focus you thoughts, change your language, or just keep yourself away from ‘those’  situations. Here are a few questions I use in training to help folk think through emotional hijack.

  • When has there been a situation when you have been “emotionally hijacked”?
  • When did you realise what was happening?
  • In hindsight, what other options were there? List as many as you can think of.
  • Which option would you choose as being the most emotionally intelligent?

If you’ve learnt to control outbursts at work, or you’ve helped a colleague be less reactive, do leave a comment with any tips you have.


Julie Cooper

By | 2017-03-30T14:12:17+01:00 March 2nd, 2016|People Tips|0 Comments

About the Author:

I am trainer, coach and author specialising in one to one skills.

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