Nobody likes to be hijacked by emotions. It can be scary to find yourself overtaken with emotions or acting out in ways that don’t make sense. When your emotions hijack you, they take over and bypass your rational thought processes. You have an intense emotional reaction to a person or situation that is in excess of what the situation actually warrants. In the moment, you feel all consumed by the emotions. However, later, once they subside, you become aware that your response was out of proportion with what happened. You might even feel shame for the emotional hijack.
Emotional hijacks show up in all different types of people. You may have been told you are “reactive” or that you have an issue with anger. Or, you may be someone who holds it in for the most part, only to melt down when a straw has finally broken the camel’s back. Do any of the following scenarios resonate with your experience?
- You are sharing a sensitive problem with a family member. As they try to weigh in, you notice your blood pressure rise and your anger flare. “Stop judging me!” you lash out. “I just need you to LISTEN!”
- Things have been going better after a hard season. You’ve been getting into a good rhythm, caring for your body, and on top of things with your kids. Suddenly, one morning you wake up flooded with anger or anxiety. “What is wrong with me? Why am I melting down?” you ask yourself.
- One day, a kind stranger at the grocery store helps you when you drop a bunch of cans. You notice your eyes welling up. You barely hold it together as you get yourself to your car, where you find yourself overwhelmed with sobbing out of nowhere.
Emotional hijacks aren’t pleasant, and they can often feel frightening. We can’t understand why our emotions are showing up in big ways. Parts of us worry that we’ll always feel that way. But, the truth is the hijack is simply a cue that some aspect of your soul needs your attention. It can bring valuable information that can help you grow, heal, and become more emotionally intelligent.
Emotional Hijacking and Emotional Intelligence
Emotions are part of your God-given design. They help you process life circumstances. When handled with care, they help you to make healthy decisions about your life and about how you relate to other people. The term emotional intelligence gained popularity in the 1990s when psychologist Daniel Goleman argued that it is a key ingredient to success, both at work and in relationships. Emotionally intelligent people understand their own emotions and can also recognize emotions in others. They use this information in proactive ways to guide decision making and create healthier communities.
The problem is that most people aren’t taught how to develop emotional intelligence. It’s typically not a course you took in school or a series offered at your church. In fact, many people are taught the exact opposite of emotional intelligence. For example, you may have been taught to fear, deny, or bypass your emotions. Maybe you were told to “Stop being so emotional.” Or, maybe you simply grew up in an environment in which it was not safe for you to experience a healthy range of emotions. When sad, scary, or unjust things happened, perhaps no one taught you how to process these events in a healthy way. As a result, you are now experiencing the effects of unresolved emotions. They are hijacking you at inopportune times.
The good news is that you can learn to develop emotional intelligence. You can begin to unpack any emotional backlog you might have. And, you can learn to become more aware of your emotions as they show up. This work can take time, but is key to becoming more whole. It starts with simply getting curious when you are hijacked.
Why am I experiencing an emotional hijack?
There are 3 primary reasons you might find yourself in the midst of an emotional hijack:
1.) Something harmful is happening in your environment.
If you find yourself emotionally hijacked, the first question to ask yourself is whether something harmful is actually happening in your immediate environment. Even if you are experiencing it as an over-reaction, the hijack may well be a cue that something is going on that needs your attention. For example, it’s possible that your friend is judging or belittling you. While you would prefer not to lash out at your friend, you do need to become more aware of how she is mistreating you. Getting curious about the hijack and what might have caused it can give you valuable information for how to communicate on behalf of yourself once the emotions have subsided.
2.) An old trauma wound is being touched.
Often, we get hijacked when something in our current environment touches on a past trauma. When this happens, you may find yourself reacting in a way that is disproportionate with the triggering event. For example, if your spouse—who is normally kind—is impatient with you, it might trigger a part of you that was verbally berated by a parent. As a result, you find yourself responding to a minor infraction with a big emotional response. The parts of you that could not respond with the appropriate emotion as a child rush to the surface and hijack you now. There’s no shame in this type of reaction, though you may find yourself apologizing after the fact. It’s an opportunity to get curious about what happened and let it teach you more about yourself and your relationship.
3.) Something good is happening.
Sometimes, we get emotionally hijacked when something good is happening. Maybe you’ve made some important changes in your life. You’ve left a toxic relationship behind you, started caring for yourself better, and feel happy for the first time in a long while. Suddenly, you find yourself feeling anxious, scared, or lonely and you can’t figure out why.
This type of ambush is common, and usually is a sign that you’ve created more safety for yourself. Parts of you sense the safety and show up with old doubts or fears. It may be that parts of you are ready for the next step, and they don’t know any other way to get your attention. They still can’t believe that things have actually changed, so they show up in a storm cloud, when you all you needed was a gentle tap.
We can also get hijacked when someone is actually trying to help us. For example, if you’ve never experienced healthy boundaries in your relationships, it can feel terribly triggering when someone makes a genuine, constructive request of you. You might notice yourself overwhelmed with indignation: How dare they suggest I’m not pulling my weight? However, once the emotions subside, you might realize that the request was valid. Good for you! This hijack is nothing to be ashamed of. Instead, you’re simply learning to adjust to healthy give and take in a relationship. This is a huge step toward emotional intelligence.
What do I do when I am emotionally hijacked?
Bypassing or denying your emotions is not what Scripture recommends. (See Job 42:7-8, Isaiah 53:4; John 11:33; Matthew 5:3-5, etc.) Jesus welcomes the beat up, downtrodden, hopeless, even doubting souls he encounters. He does not exile them. Likewise, don’t exile your own emotions when they hijack you. Instead, treat the hijack as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and your experiences. Here are 4 steps to take when you feel overtaken by your emotions:
1.) Name what is happening.
Typically, when you’re hijacked by emotions, you’re operating out of one part of your brain (the amygdala). The first step toward opening up more of your brain’s capacity is to recognize what is happening: I’m having an emotional hijack.
Then take, some deep breaths to begin the physiological process of slowing yourself down.
2.) Extend compassion toward yourself.
Your first response to an unwanted hijack is typically to beat yourself up or try to will yourself to stop. Neither works. Instead, practice extending compassion toward yourself: It’s OK. I’m OK. This is my body trying to tell me something.
More deep breaths.
3.) Invite God to draw near.
I don’t mean to try to pray away what you are feeling. Instead, simply open your hands or position your body in a way that feels grounding. Then, acknowledge that God is already right there with you in this experience: God, you are here with me. Guide me. Steady me, as I seek to understand what is happening.
More deep breaths.
4.) Reach out to a safe person.
If you can, reach out to a safe person. Let them know you feel hijacked emotionally, and ask them to be with you in that experience. You’re not looking for solutions right away. You’re simply looking for someone who can offer you a hug, a word of support, or compassion until the emotional hijack subsides and you feel more like yourself again.
As you engage what is happening with compassion, your emotions might not go away immediately. However, instead of fighting with them, you’re learning to work with them. You’re learning to let them cycle through your body. Once they pass through—and they will—then you can begin to reflect on what happened.
God made you to have emotions. They’re an important part of who you are. Pay attention to them and tend them carefully, as you would your body or your mind. As you do, they’ll become wonderful allies on your journey toward wholeness.
For further reading:
Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings into Your Greatest Allies, by Alison Cook, PhD and Kimberly Miller, MTh, LMFT
Join the conversation. Leave a comment below:
Have you experienced an emotional hijack? Which of the 3 categories above do you most relate to?