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Brain and Fear: Explaining the Amygdala or Lizard Brain

Updated: Jan 25, 2023

The brain is inarguably the most complex and fascinating part of the human body. And its largest part, the Amygdala, aka the lizard brain, plays a super important role: It works to protect us from dangers. But, left unsupervised, the amygdala can hijack our minds and make us do things we can only regret later. If you’ve ever lost control and done something regrettable in the heat of the moment, you’ll know what we mean.

In this article, we’ll tell you:

· How amygdala works

· The role of the prefrontal cortex

· How you can activate other parts of your brain to effectively cope with amygdala hijack

· And, some prevention techniques

Let’s get started.

Everything You Need to Know About Amygdala or Lizard Brain

Dissecting the Human Brain

First, it’s important that you know how different parts of the brains work with one another.

Let’s first take a quick look at how the amygdala works.

Amygdala or the Lizard Brain

The two clusters of almond-like cells at the base of your brain make the amygdala. This part of your brain regulates your behavioral and emotional responses.

Why is it called “The Lizard Brain”? Because the amygdala is the only functioning aspect of a brain that a lizard has.

Importantly, it works to protect us from all kinds of dangers.

So, for instance, if you see a bee, the amygdala, or lizard brain, will alert the hypothalamus to release chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol.

These chemicals are needed to activate our body’s fight-or-flight response.

While the amygdala does a great job at alerting, it isn’t equipped to discern between real and imagined threats.

So, just because you see a bee doesn’t mean it will attack you, but the amygdala triggers the body to react as if you’re under attack.

Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex, which is located at the front of your brain, regulates reasoning, movement, thinking, planning, and decision-making.

In other words, it’s a more rational part of your brain that you can use to evaluate your emotions and respond consciously rather than automatically.

What is an Amygdala Hijack

The term “Amygdala hijack” was first coined by Daniel Goleman in his book on emotional intelligence.

It simply refers to the out-of-proportion emotional reaction to someone or something. In other words, an amygdala hijack makes you “lose it”.

The purpose of the amygdala is to protect us from danger, but the threats in this modern world are a lot more subtle. The amygdala doesn’t know that. As a result, it can interfere with our normal functioning in a lot of day-to-day situations.

Fight or Flight

The amygdala also activates your body’s fight-or-flight response, but it does that without your active participation.

Your brain produces stress hormones whenever the amygdala senses any danger. Today, our fight-or-flight response can easily get triggered by common emotions like aggression, anger, anxiety, fear, and stress.

This is where the other part of your brain, the frontal lobes, plays its role.

The Role of the Frontal Lobes

The frontal lobes, as the name suggests, are situated at the front of your brain.

They regulate reasoning, movement, planning, and other voluntary actions.

So, the reactions from this part of the brain aren’t automatic or instantaneous.

Going back to the bee example. While the amygdala may tell you that you’re under attack, the frontal lobes will help you understand if the danger is real.

But, in stronger threats, the amygdala may override the frontal lobes and trigger the fight-or-flight response.

In the early ages, this fight-or-flight response was vital to human survival, where physical threats were very real.

However, in today’s age, psychological threats like anger, stress, and aggression can trigger this part of our brain.

The amygdala hijack takes place when the amygdala overrides the frontal lobes, disabling your rational thinking.

Mental Health and Amygdala

Certain mental health conditions like chronic stress can increase the chances of an amygdala hijack.

For instance example, people suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) exhibit stronger amygdala activation.

Even mild anxiety disorders and chronic stress can trigger frequent amygdala hijacks.

Therefore, it’s important to help regulate your emotions before accessing the take control of your emotional responses by using the more rational part of your brain. Both cannot be online at the same time.

Symptoms of Amygdala Hijack

The good thing is that you can easily recognize an amygdala hijack by observing your body’s reactions to a stressful situation.

Your brain releases two hormones when it’s in a state of stress:

· Cortisol

· Adrenaline

They are meant to prepare your body to fight or flee.

The release of these chemicals can cause several changes in your body, including:

· Increased blood flow (For more muscle strength)

· Expansion of airways (For more oxygen)

· Increased blood sugar (For immediate energy)

· Pupil dilation (For better vision)

All of these changes happen to help your body to flee or fight.

Moreover, you may experience the following symptoms when these hormones are released:

· Rapid heartbeat

· Clammy skin

· Goosebumps

· Sweaty palms

Amidst amygdala hijack, you may also find yourself behaving irrationally and inappropriately.

Dealing with Amygdala Hijack

As previously mentioned, an amygdala hijack happens without your conscious input.

But, this doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything once it’s triggered. You just need to activate your brain’s frontal lobes and deactivate the amygdala.

We know it’s easier said than done, but all it takes is a consistent conscious effort. The first thing you’d need to do is acknowledge how your body is reacting to a stressful situation.

Take note of your symptoms during a hijack. Keep in mind that it can be difficult to stop a hijack and evaluate your feelings, so give yourself some time.

The next time you experience the hijack, remind yourself it’s your body’s automatic response and not necessarily a logical one.

After you calm down, try activating your logical brain and think about what triggered the response.

The responses that you wi’ll come in a calmer state of mind will be more rational and logical.

In addition, focusing on your breathing during a fight-or-flight response can also work wonders. So, focus on your breathing; if you’re breathing faster than normal, try to slow it down.

Rhythmic deep breathing can calm your nervous system and let you make logical decisions during an amygdala hijack.

Also, think about the triggers leading to the amygdala hijack. This will help you recognize warning signs and better prepare for them the next time.

Plus, remember that it takes six seconds for stress hormones to dissipate. So, the moment you start feeling anxious or stressed, focus on something good for 6six seconds. This will prevent your amygdala from taking over your logical brain in the heat of the moment.

How to Prevent Amygdala Hijack

The right way to prevent amygdala hijack is by polishing your emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is your ability to perceive, evaluate, and manage emotions and use them in positive ways.

The key is to develop strong connections between the emotional (amygdala) and the logical (frontal lobes) parts of your brain.

An emotionally intelligent person knows how to de-escalate their emotions by focusing on their thoughts and feelings.

Now, although some people are born with good emotional intelligence, it’ is not something you can’t cultivate or learn.

Here are a few helpful techniques to prevent amygdala hijack.


Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present in the moment, without getting distracted or overwhelmed by what’s happening around you.

Studies suggest that mindfulness meditation can help improve emotional intelligence in the following ways:

· Understanding and controlling your own emotions

· Recognizing others’ emotions

· Practicing mindfulness every day will help you develop the rational part of your brain, allowing you to cope with stressful situations effectively.

Stress Management

Being aware of your stressors and when they get triggered can also help you prevent amygdala hijack.

And sometimes, all you need to do is employ simple stress management techniques.

Effective stress management includes:

· Fast-acting relievers (e.g., breathing exercises)

· Healthy long-term habits (e.g., exercise)

Now, diffusing an amygdala hijack and preventing it should be your focus. However, remember that it’s okay to make mistakes.

If you do find yourself letting the amygdala hijack get the better of you, simply acknowledge it and take some time to reflect on what happened.

Thinking about your reactions in a calmer state of mind can help you develop your emotional intelligence, too.

Seek Professional Help

Every time the amygdala takes over your logical brain, it makes you lose control and make the worst of the situation.

The good news is that it’s possible to prevent your brain’s automatic emotional responses from getting the better of you, in any situation.

However, while taking control of your thoughts, and eventually actions, may seem simple, it can be hard work sometimes.

If you’re finding it hard to practice mindfulness and stress management techniques, consider seeking professional help.

Even if you’re seeing positive results, working with an expert can multiply the progress.

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