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What is Emotional Hijacking, and How Can You Prevent It?

Can you correctly identify the emotions you have experienced within the last 24 hours?

Research conducted by Talent Smart – one of the leading providers of emotional intelligence testing and training - shows only 36% of us can accurately label our emotions. According to Talent Smart, this “is problematic because unlabeled emotions often go misunderstood, which leads to irrational choices and counterproductive actions.Furthermore, being unaware of our emotions makes it easier to find ourselves emotionally hijacked.

Emotional Hijacking: What It Is and How to Recognize It

Emotional hijacking, a term coined by Daniel Goleman, describes when the amygdala - the part of the brain associated with emotional processing - takes over standard reasoning. The main job of the amygdala is to respond to a threat. Without regard for your physical location, when the amygdala senses danger, it makes a split-second decision to flee, fight, or freeze.

Have you ever had a conflict with a colleague or friend or felt you were unfairly treated?

At the onset of conflict, your body suddenly changes. Your heart is racing, and your palms are sweating. Heat flushes your face, and your breathing becomes rapid or shallow. Your body is warning you to protect yourself!

You are in the throes of an emotional hijacking by this time, and it is often too late to develop a rational response.

Coping with stressful or difficult situations is a part of work and life. Since stress triggers the amygdala, it is essential to take charge of your emotions.

How to Prevent Emotional Hijacking

Emotional intelligence [1] is a set of emotional and social skills that collectively establish how well we:

  • Understand, express, and manage ourselves effectively

  • Develop and maintain relationships

  • Cope with challenges

  • Make effective decisions

  • Use emotional information in an effective and meaningful way

Practicing self-awareness and developing your ability to self-regulate, two components of emotional intelligence, are two of the best ways to prevent emotional hijacking.

Practice Self-Awareness: Labeling Your Emotions

Words matter,” says Psychologist and Wall Street Journal bestseller Susan David Ph.D. It’s easy to minimize our feelings with generic words like “mad” or “upset,” but labeling emotions can be “transformative,” according to Dr. David.

Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions provides an excellent framework for understanding emotions and their purpose. It is an excellent source to help you put a more accurate label on what you feel. Practice labeling your emotions to better understand what they are and where they come from.

Develop Self-Regulation: Respond; Don’t React

Have you ever received harsh feedback or been the recipient of a rude comment?

Your initial impulse to react to either could be intense. Whereas self-awareness is about recognizing your feelings, self-regulation is the extent to which we manage our thoughts and feelings. Instead of reacting, we consciously respond. To help regulate my emotions, I pause and take a few deep breaths before responding. You could try pausing or saying something like, “I need a few minutes to think about this,” and then step away.

Being Aware of Your Emotions Puts You in Charge

Emotions must be processed for maximum effectiveness. If we do not learn ways to process our emotions, we may have an adverse emotional reaction or response before knowing what is happening (i.e., amygdala hijack). Because of this, it is easy to see why emotional intelligence is so important personally and professionally.

Two of the “hallmarks” of emotional intelligence are:

  • Emotional self-awareness – labeling our emotions and noticing when they change

  • Self-regulation – keeping our emotions “in check.”

Expanding your emotional vocabulary and taking time to process a response instead of reacting are two simple strategies to make emotional intelligence feel less intangible.

Remember, getting hooked by your emotions puts you at risk of not being your best. While developing stronger emotional intelligence takes work, the investment of time is sure to yield a sweet reward, and your future self will thank you.

[1] Multi Health Systems


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