Emotional Hijacking: What Is It?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Happiness Advantage" by Shawn Achor. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is emotional hijacking? How can your emotions take over your rational thinking?

When you’re faced with danger or stress, the primitive emotional system in your brain takes over, which is called emotional hijacking. Learning how to manage emotional hijacking will help you make better decisions and handle stress better.

Learn more about emotional hijacking below.

Emotional Hijacking, Explained

Despite all the benefits of feeling in control, your sense of self-efficacy can fly out the window when you feel overwhelmed. The reason for this is embedded in the evolutionary wiring of your brain. Your brain has two dueling influences:

  1. The emotional system is a primitive part of the brain that takes over when you’re faced with danger or, simply, stress. This part of the brain initiates reflexes like the fight-or-flight response, making it critical to survival because it enables you to act before you have a chance to think.
  2. The rational system is responsible for carefully weighed logic and reasoning that allows you to think before you react.

When you experience stress or fear and your emotional brain takes over, this is called emotional hijacking. While that response is helpful when confronting a life-threatening danger, it becomes problematic when the trigger is something more mundane, like a stressful project at work. Emotional hijacking impedes your decision-making, problem-solving, and communication skills, which makes it more difficult to tackle the task at hand and exacerbates stress and anxiety, creating a vicious cycle. 

Furthermore, you don’t have to be facing a single, daunting challenge to experience emotional hijacking. When small, daily stresses can accumulate with time, a minor problem can become the straw that broke the camel’s back and lead to an emotional hijacking. When you’re on the verge or in the grips of an emotional hijacking, the effects of that hijacking can make it even more difficult to regain control. 

(Shortform note: For a deeper explanation of emotional hijacking and tips on how to overcome it, read our summary of Emotional Intelligence. And, to learn more about how the dueling emotional and rational systems affect our decision-making, read our summary of Thinking, Fast and Slow.)

Regain Control With Incremental Progress

Your emotional system hijacks your rational brain when you start to feel overwhelmed, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed when social and cultural norms push people to achieve big goals quickly: For example, new CEOs are expected to make the companies profitable within the first quarter, and new coaches are pressured to win games immediately. Lofty, often unrealistic goals become daunting, and, when you fall short, you may wonder whether you have any control at all. From there, it’s a short slide into a cycle of learned helplessness. 

Emotional Hijacking: What Is It?

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Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in English Literature. Growing up, she enjoyed reading fairy tales, Beatrix Potter stories, and The Wind in the Willows. As of today, her all-time favorite book is Wuthering Heights, with Jane Eyre as a close second. Elizabeth has branched out to non-fiction since graduating and particularly enjoys books relating to mindfulness, self-improvement, history, and philosophy.

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