In the last few years there has been an explosion of interest in the emotional functioning of the brain, and the areas responsible for the brain’s emotional responses have been termed the limbic system. The very term indicates that study of this sort remains on the periphery of accepted science, since “limbic” comes from the word “limbus”, which is Latin for “edge”. However, limbic also describes where these areas are believed to reside.
The term “limbic system” was first used in 1952 to describe a set of functionally-related structures in the brain that border the midline and inner surface of each cerebral hemisphere. These structures were also called the “visceral brain”, as they were believed to be ancient parts of the brain inherited from lower mammals that primitive man used to mediate his behavior. Although this link with other species is now rejected, the concept of the limbic system controversially survives.
Although there is no agreement over exactly which structures make up the limbic system, most researchers consider it to be various parts of the cerebral cortex (the layer of the brain often referred to as “gray matter” – the outer portion of the cerebrum) that are linked to a central core of structures lying below the cerebral cortex. These various sub-cortical areas then extend down through the core of the brain to the upper part of the brain stem.
There is also disagreement over what function the limbic system has. Early notions relating it to emotion and motivation have been expanded to include the processing of sensory and cognitive information, learning and memory, sexual function as it relates to a reward system serving emotional reactions, and motor functions. It is also suggested that the limbic system is concerned with mentally integrating all functions that relate to our personal “experience” – what makes us who we are.
Most modern brain research focuses on sensory and cognitive functions, because these processes are more amenable to objective study in the laboratory. It is clear, however, that the brain is far more than this. The goals, hopes, desires and fears that we have all originate in the brain, and our ability to express emotions is a fundamental form of behavior. It is equally clear that our “emotional brain” influences the decisions made by our “thinking brain”, and vice versa.
With this is mind, neuroscience is taking an avid interest in the emotional brain. Studies cover all areas, including genes and their molecular products, cellular physiological properties of neurons in dishes as well as in living brains, pharmacology of synaptic transmission, behavioral processes, computer simulations of brain function, and imaging of normal subjects alongside neurological and psychiatric patients.
It is now known that the amygdalae – part of the limbic system and considered to be the emotional center of our brain – perform a primary role in the processing and memory of emotional reactions. The amygdalae are almond-shaped groups of nuclei located deep within the medial temporal lobes of the brain in complex vertebrates, including humans.
Why do we Act Emotionally?
Neuroscientists have recently discovered that much of what we see and hear goes directly to the amygdala without passing through the neocortex where logic and rational decision-making occurs. This means that we often feel and act before we think.
One of the easiest ways to study responses within the amygdalae is with Pavlovian fear conditioning. Research indicates that sensory stimuli during fear conditioning reach the central nuclei of the amygdalae where they form associations with memories of the stimuli.
The more often the synapses are affected, the quicker they will trigger a response, such as freezing (immobility), tachycardia (rapid heartbeat), increased respiration, and stress-hormone release.
It is only through exercising emotional intelligence that we are able to manage these responses more rationally, although we should not forget that some of our emotional responses – such as our fear response – happen for very good reason, and ignoring or damping them too quickly could lead to a our succumbing to a dangerous situation.
The important point is to differentiate between “acting” emotionally, and “reacting” emotionally. If we take the obvious connotation of the word “acting”, then this implies that our acting emotional is quite within our power to control because it is simply that: an act. Although the stimulus may have been very real, and the reaction to it genuine enough, our continued display of emotion is now being falsely perpetuated since the thinking brain has had ample opportunity to analyze the situation and factor in some sense of calm. Being able to rationalize our emotional reactions and not have them create an unnecessary ongoing drama is the essence of emotional intelligence.
The simple advice often offered to individuals who are prone to flying off the handle is to take a deep breath before reacting. This makes perfect sense when you consider how our emotional responses can fire up before our rationale has had a chance to moderate the situation.
What Is Emotional Hijacking?
Emotional hijacking is when your emotional brain takes control, subverting your rational thinking responses. The term first appeared in Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.
Extremes of emotion can trigger emotional hijacking, such as a panic attack in which your emotional response actually bypasses your thinking brain and produces a super-quick instinctive response. Whilst this is happening, it is very difficult, even impossible, to think straight because the part of the brain you think with is inhibited.
These are your amygdalae at work, behaving in their primitive way to protect you. They are designed to ensure your survival, rather than for problem-solving in complex situations. People who experience panic attacks are well aware they are not acting rationally, and this causes further upset, but there is little to be done to forestall a panic attack because it's not the rational part of the brain that deals with this emotional response.
Emotional hijacking happens to people every day to varying degrees, and it does not have to manifest itself so obviously as a panic attack or a loss of temper. Our society and the frantic way in which so many of us live our lives mean we are often “living on our nerves”, and can therefore be teetering on the edge of being emotionally hijacked for hours at a time, especially when we are in stressful or potentially aggravating situations that have gone awry in the past. In this situation, our emotional synapses can be firing in preparation for a major attack.
In the workplace, emotional hijacking can cause all sorts of problems. Relationships can be damaged and productivity halted. Confidence in one’s own abilities can be undermined, or in that of our working colleagues.
You can tell when you are experiencing an emotional hijacking because you start to feel drained, frustrated, irritated, angry, sad, fearful, or any emotion that really has no place within a professional working environment. It can happen quite subtly, even as you are talking to someone who appears not to be listening.
That mounting sense of frustration that you feel means you are already being hijacked by your emotions. It may never lead to an emotional outburst as such, but if you are feeling any emotion where you know you shouldn’t be, you’ve been hijacked.
What is especially telling is how long it subsequently takes you to return to a normal state of mind where your professional activities can carry on unimpeded. As long as your mind keeps returning to the cause of your upset, you have still not been fully released from the emotion.
One of the best ways of being able to reclaim your equilibrium is to be aware of what is happening. The best way to ward of a hijack in the first place is to spot potential triggers the very second they appear. If a colleague has a habit of winding you up to the point that you feel emotionally hijacked, you have to learn to condition your response back down. Replacing anger with humor can help.
The following three simple steps can help fend off emotional hijacking in the workplace:.
Manage yourself – Take a few deep breaths and face your anxiety, anger, frustration, or whatever emotion you are feeling. This provides the opportunity to practice your emotional response ability. Think about how exactly you would prefer the situation to progress, and make sure you keep that as a focus. Try also to understand where your colleague is coming from, so that you can anticipate the worst they can throw at you, and also try to understand their point of view so that you can establish some common ground.
Manage your team – Make sure you ask for clarification about any matter you have to deal with. Lack of understanding, or being confused, can cause immense frustrations. Make sure all parties know how you want to be involved and that you want your input to be valued. Don’t be shy about asking questions and challenging ideas and methods you object to. This may cause a little friction initially, but is preferable to your being emotionally hijacked by regret once the moment has passed. Regret or shame at not taking appropriate action can lead to an emotional hijacking that can last for days, and that may even negatively color the way you view yourself on an ongoing basis. Some people spend their entire lives emotionally hijacked.
Enlist support – If you really feel that you are making every effort but are being consistently undermined, take it up with your superiors. Bring everything out into the open. Remember that, by their very nature, hijackings are sudden events. Scheduling time when the problem can be addressed can help to remove the surprise element from the situation. You are taking control.