“What Just Happened Here?” How to Avoid, Interrupt, and Recover from Brain Hijacks

September 25, 2020
Basic Needs
Health and Mental Care
Family Support
father, mother and son having a conversation

Judith Lavori Keiser, Founder of The Culture Company

Did you ever find yourself stuck in an argument and not able to stop? We may have great communication skills, but in a stressful situation we often forget to use them. We start proving a point or defending a position, and the next thing we know, we’re fighting.

It happens to everyone. Our amygdala, or emotional brains, react to stress faster than our rational brains can. Our instinctive “fight or flight” response to danger “hijacks” our rational brains. That instant reaction could save lives when we were a tiger’s prey. Although tigers aren’t chasing us anymore, our brains are still hyper-alert to danger and stress.

Luckily, by paying attention, we can analyze what hijacked our brains, try to interrupt the process, and occasionally even prevent the next one.


Suppose you realize that your voice is rising, and your blood is starting to boil. Every parent has had this experience - kids know exactly what buttons to push.Sometimes we’re just aware enough to realize that we’re losing control as we flare into a rage. Our bodies carry anger, tension and fear as physical energy, which is hard to control. The energy fills the body with discomfort, restricts the breathing, and tenses the head and neck muscles. That’s why anything that engages the body is helpful during a brain hijack, because it interrupts the momentum of emotional energy, so we can start thinking again.

Some ways to pull back from the cliff edge:

• Notice: Observe how your body feels, whether it’s a tight chest, butterflies in your stomach, or a tense jaw.
• Breathe: Focus on your breathing. Take ten deep slow breaths. Or concentrate on how many counts it takes to inhale and exhale, taking a little longer with each breath. Raise your shoulders as high as they’ll go while breathing in, then drop them as you exhale. Then stretch, trying to yawn. Yawning can release tension and stretching engages the large muscle groups of your arms and back.
• Time-out: Step out of the room, away from the computer or off the call for just a minute. Shift the physical focus so your brain can shift also.


Sometimes we don’t recognize that our brains have been hijacked until the fight is over. Puzzled, we blink and ask, “What just happened here?” At that point, the important thing is to get your rational brain back in the driver’s seat. Talk with someone about what button got pushed and where you went off the rails. Try to remember what was said that hijacked your brain. Was
it the message, or maybe how it was delivered? How did you feel: afraid,angry or frustrated? Be curious – try to learn something about yourself or the other person. With children, our deep concern for their safety can be masked by anger at their foolish actions. Sometimes we yell to cover our relief that they’re ok, and they don’t realize how scared we were that they could be
hurt. After the temperature cools, that’s an important message to convey: our emotional reaction may come from deep love.


Of course, the best way to handle a brain hijack is to prevent it. Some stressful situations are surprises, but family dynamics, sensitive subjects and bad timing are predictable sources of stress and conflict. Add unexpected stresses like coronavirus, and it becomes that much easier to get into conflicts.

To lower the chance that things will get out of control, think ahead:

• Be Proactive: If something is bothering you, make a “date” to discuss it before you’re really mad. Talk at a good time – not late at night, in a hurry or when anyone is hungry.
• Prepare by Imagining: Before a difficult conversation, don’t rehearse the positions you’ll take. Instead, imagine what the other person might need from you, and what you might need from them. Needs are universal parts of being human, unlike positions, which are attitudes that often cover up insecurity about getting our needs met.
• Accentuate the Positive: What would feel like a good outcome from this conversation? What is your purpose in raising the subject? What’s your intended result? Focus on what you want, not what you fear. A positive attitude keeps your rational brain in charge and can create space for the other person to follow your lead.

We can’t avoid every brain hijack. But we can try to head it off or interrupt a hijack in progress, and even if we don’t succeed, we can work to understand better why it happened. The more we pay attention to how we feel, reach out proactively, and practice communicating, the better we can answer the question “what just happened here?” 

Judith Lavori Keiser founded The Culture Company to guide children toward empathy through multicultural peacemaking programs. Judy’s Pearls programs inspire adults to live consciously and compassionately. Reach Judy at info@peacethruplay.com.

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