5993520162_148e1a50e9_zWe all have done it at one time or another.  I’ve done it many more times than I care to admit.

I’m talking about letting yourself get emotionally hijacked.

Out of the blue, someone makes a callous comment that just gets under your skin and will not get out of your head, or you get caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic when you are already running late for an important appointment, or despite your meticulous planning, the first flight on your trip gets delayed which, like dominoes,  messes up your connecting flight, your arrival, your transportation, and your dinner plans.

Your heart starts pounding, you begin sweating profusely, and can feel yourself getting that “aack!” feeling. Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, calls this “getting hooked.”  In the article How We Get Hooked and How We Get Unhooked, she says:

The Tibetan word for this is shenpa. It is usually translated ‘attachment,’ but a more descriptive translation might be “hooked.” When shenpa hooks us, we’re likely to get stuck. We could call shenpa “that sticky feeling.” It’s an everyday experience. Even a spot on your new sweater can take you there. At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That’s the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us.”

Why Your Brain Gets Hooked

There’s a biological reason for this hooked feeling. The amygdala, a primitive part of the brain responsible for the fight or flight fear response, is just kicking in doing its job.  However, in this day and age, we are highly unlikely to encounter a life or death situation on a regular basis, and it does not need to be so vigilant.

Mother nature was kind enough to program the amygdala to ensure your survival. Babies come into the world with certain innate fears: snakes, spiders, heights, darkness, sudden loud noises, and closed-in spaces. Over the course of our lives, we add many more fears that we learn from the people around us and our experiences.

Through repeated, habitual responses and behaviors, the pathways in the brain which keep the amygdala hyper-aware are reinforced to produce fear and anxiety.  (Mine used to be on red alert all the time.) When very anxious, with the amygdala fully engaged, this emotional response can even bypass the “thinking brain”, your frontal lobe, causing rational thinking to be very difficult if not impossible.

So, You Get Hooked. What now?

OK. You’re already hooked. What you do next determines how the rest of the story goes and whether you allow yourself to get hijacked or not.  A person can react unconsciously and habitually to that hooked feeling with agitation, anger, and anxiety, which I will tell you from personal experience can make a situation go from bad to worse very quickly.  This practice also further reinforces the fear and anxiety pathways in your brain giving the amygdala the equivalent of “atta boy!”

Alternatively, a person can choose to acknowledge and accept that they are hooked.  Feel the uneasy feelings.  Breathe.  Then, recognize that the situation is just another ordinary occurrence in everyday life. Come fully into the present moment.  Recognize that you are not the first person this has ever happened to and that things are and can still be OK.

The situation, then, becomes a tool with which to work for your growth and learning. This choice etches and reinforces the anti-anxiety pathways in the brain and calms the amygdala.  I guarantee you that it will also make the experience much more pleasant…maybe even enjoyable.  It could happen.  It does not change the circumstances one bit, but it does change the way you experience them.

No Hook Here!

For example, just the other day, I got an email from my ex-husband that politely demanded, based on a legal premise, that I do something which involved reviewing and revising my taxes for the past seven years.  Not a small undertaking at all to say the least.  Instead of going into orbit, as I would have done a few years ago, I told myself that I was not going to let this hijack my mood or my day.  I was going to use the situation as a learning experience for being aware and consciously choosing my response and behavior. So, I sent an inquiring message to my lawyer and proceeded to go about my morning as usual.  No sooner than I had decided this, within the hour, I got a reply from my lawyer (a remarkable feat in itself!) telling me that the legal basis for doing this which had been cited wasn’t correct.

Whenever you let something hook and hijack you, it’s a nonproductive use of your time and energy and reinforces the stress pathways in your brain creating stress conditions in your body.  By being present and aware and choosing to react consciously and calmly you can change your brain and life for the better.

image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/msakr/

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  1. Thanks,
    Sometimes I find it advantageous to be hard of hearing or better not to react immediately
    Many times we miss interpret what is going on
    What was the old saying? “Sticks & Stones may Break my Bones but
    Words will never hurt me.
    I always had the luxury having a twin brother
    I could say it wasn’t me, it was my twin brother

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Chet, sounds like you have found your own way of not getting hooked and hijacked that works for you! 🙂

  2. Julie Nowlan Reply

    Great article, Debbie! I’ve spent years and years trying to “unlearn” being the victim of emotional hijacking. Growing up in a household where anxiety and depression was the “norm” it took lots of growing up for me to realize I didn’t have to be a victim. Still fight the hijacking frequently, but have finally developed some strategies to observe and recognize, rather than react and spiral down. So enjoy your insights and observations. They are gentle reminders for me to continue to work to find my peace. Thanks for all you do!

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Julie, thank you for the kind words. I, too, learned to let myself get emotionally hooked and hijacked. I think a lot of us did. Fortunately, it can be unlearned and we can step off of that emotional roller coaster. Learning to do this has made my life so much more peaceful and happy. I’m glad you have discovered this peace. It is a continual job to work towards it every day, huh!? But, sooo worth it.

  3. I can still get emotionally hijacked quite easily! But I’m getting better at letting it go too. I know that research has shown that meditation can calm the amygdala in the brain. So coming into the present moment makes and calming your self makes sense

    The question I have though is whether every emotional reaction actually activates the amygdala or whether other brain forces may be at play. And I would guess that “shenpa” goes beyond the functioning of the brain alone as it is said in the Buddhist teachings that these same fear-based reactions can occur in the after-death, between life states when we don’t have a physical brain!

    In any case, it certainly makes sense to get emotionally “unhooked” and I appreciate your advice on doing that.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Wow! Buddhism teaches that Shenpa goes on even after death. So, it is a concept that goes beyond the physical. It makes sense to me that it is an energetic phenomenon.

      I do not really get hooked very much anymore. But, then again, I live a very isolated life without many “hooks.”

  4. In seminars I went through in Landmark Education they use the term “hooked” to describe what happens when we get emotionally charged by something. It usually is the phenomenon of the old adage ” if you spot it you got it” at work, meaning, there is something that just occurred that has a negative meaning to that you subconsciously don’t like about yourself. IE: someone gossips about you, you don’t like gossips but… you have gossiped about others. It is a VERY teachable moment if you can really look at the real reason you got “hooked”.

    Landmark teaches you to uncover the “in-authenticity” you have around that with the person and realize the impact of being that way and create a new way of being in that moment. It is quite remarkable when you are able to see yourself in a new way by noticing what hooks you and why.

    Thanks for sharing this article Debbie!

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Susan, thanks for commenting. The Landmark Education sounds very beneficial and like it is based in mindfulness practices. I would think this might be too “woo woo” for a business crowd. So, they use it some more business-like names for the concepts. Still works! 🙂

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  6. I have always hadva problem of crying when I am angry all the does is make me angrier and I cry more. I had never thought of it before but I think that might be an emotional hi-jack. Am I right?

    • Jen,

      I’m not sure exactly what you mean. Somewhere along the way, anger got connected to crying in your brain. It’s not really a problem, except that you don’t like it. You could try visualizing….getting in touch with the feeling of anger and visualizing thee two disconnecting….whatever image that looks like to you. Over time, the two could separate.

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