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  • Writer's pictureAli Howarth

The Emotional Hijack

Updated: Jun 26, 2022

While a lot is written about the psychological impacts of trauma, there are also pervasive and perpetuating physical responses to trauma. I'm not talking about the actual physical injuries from violence, what we're looking at are the physical responses initiated by the subconscious system when it's triggered by trauma or trauma memory. These physical responses are a direct and instinctive attempt to keep you alive and safe from a perceived danger. This can create impulses that you feel powerless to resist. And these physical responses can remain with you, long after the actual trauma is no longer in your life; and these really mess with your relationship with yourself, your relationship with other people, and your relationship with the world and community around you.

A large proportion of your brain is simply involved in the task of keeping you upright, moving around and alive. This is also known as the reptilian brain, or lizard brain. As mammals we also have the limbic system which is responsible for processing emotions. The reptilian brain + the limbic system make up our subconscious. And as human beings we have the logical frontal cortex bolted on top of the subconscious; but make no mistake, the powerful subconscious system is very hard to override with logic.

When you have been impacted by trauma it transforms the way you view and react to the world. Picture this scenario: you see a man running down the street and screaming at nothing. You write him off as disturbed and delusional. As you keep walking you then see the lion that is chasing him. Suddenly his behaviour seems completely normal and appropriate.

"Our powerful subconscious system is very hard to override with logic."

Trauma is that lion. Trauma will cause people to behave in a way that is appropriate for their survival right here and now, even if the danger and trauma they were impacted by is in the long distant past and they are currently safe. The subconscious system (which has a controlling vote in the brain) has been shaped and modified by past trauma to a set of responses designed to keep the person safe from physical and emotional trauma. Those responses no longer serve the person impacted by trauma but the subconscious doesn’t know this. As far as the subconscious is aware the trauma could be repeated at any moment. The body and subconscious need to be reminded of current safety, particularly in therapy when these memories are brought up for a very good reason. The subconscious has to realise it is safe before the logical brain can have any say over changing any unwanted behaviours. (In actual fact, the logical brain can make some good progress but will ultimately be undermined by the subconscious system.)

And, at any moment, the your subconscious can be reminded of the past trauma by simple things such as a picture, an accent, a smell; and in that moment the body and subconscious will believe that you are physically experiencing that trauma again, not just experiencing a memory, even though consciously you are aware you are in no danger. That’s what we call a flashback, or a trigger memory. And the physical and emotional response it can create is similar to that of someone being chased by a lion, someone who is in immediate physical or emotional danger. This is known as the limbic hijack.

Limbic hijack is also known as an emotional hijack. The frontal lobes are bypassed and the brain is doing everything it knows how to do in order to survive the (perceived) current threat.

Someone who is experiencing this sort of emotional hijack will feel confusion, shame and guilt about their responses, which may set up a downward spiral to even more problematic behaviours. They may be shunned by family, friends and society because of their inappropriate reactions, and may even start to shun themselves via internally directed guilt and shame. This will further exacerbate and exaggerate the inappropriate behaviours.

A trigger memory can cause physical and emotional responses designed to protect the self from danger.

As a therapist or support worker who is supporting a person impacted by trauma, these reactions and responses may challenge your ability to hold a safe place, and to hold a sacred space for your Self and your client within the healing process. These dynamics can increase your chance of experiencing vicarious trauma. Being mindful of these processes, and holding safe and healthy boundaries in your therapeutic practice, reduces the risk of developing vicarious trauma.

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