A car zooms around you on the highway, and you scream to no one that the driver is trying to run you off the road. Your partner makes an offhand comment about your spending habits and you fly into a rage and ruin the entire evening. These are just two examples of what psychologists characterize as an amygdala hijack, where your brain clicks into full-on threat mode and stays there.
An emotional reset is an attempt to calm down the amygdala and move out of that mode.
What Is the Amygdala?
The amygdala is a pair of small almond-shaped organs that sit inside each of the brain’s hemispheres and control our response to threats. Clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, PhD, describes the amygdala as the command center for safety and survival.
“The amygdala bypasses the higher-functioning parts of the brain and mobilizes an action response at almost the very moment your brain senses a danger,” Heitler explains. “You can assess the potential threat by gathering and evaluating information about it later, after you are already safe. But first, the amygdala is telling you, ‘Attack or run for your life.’”
It’s the old fight-or-flight response that, in modern times, is most often triggered by psychological threats.
Why You Might Need an Emotional Reset
While the amygdala produces reactions that are fierce and immediate, the brain’s frontal lobes act more rationally to determine how serious a threat is. Once the car on the highway moves far past you, for example, you realize the driver wasn’t trying to hurt you and you calm down.
[Read: “How Happy Brains Respond to Negative Things.”]
However, the amygdala can override the frontal lobes in an overreaction to stress—what psychologist Daniel Goleman dubbed an amygdala hijack in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.
According to Heitler, we can think of the amygdala as having an optimal level of reactivity. If it’s set to be too sensitive, our reactions to minor everyday challenges can be excessively intense.
If you find yourself or someone you know falling headfirst into these amygdala minefields, an emotional reset may be a powerful tool.
2 Ways to Perform an Emotional Reset
Push Your Own Button
Being aware that you are actively trying to stop the amygdala hijack can by itself help your brain reset. Mindfulness breathing is also recommended.
In a Psychology Today blog post, Dr. Karl Albrecht discusses a technique whereby you choose a spot on your body to act as a kind of button or switch (his is between the eyes above the brow line). Pushing this spot repeatedly while actively focusing on neutral feelings—think calmness and control—creates an association that you can return to when your amygdala kicks into overdrive.
[Read: “Toxic Anger vs. Healing Anger.”]
The key, he says, is to realize you’ve entered that mode. Then you push your reset button.
“You instantly distract your brain from its undesirable state of arousal, and you require it to pay attention to this new physical stimulus,” says Albrecht. “In the process, it begins to forget what it was doing. In a sense, you derail the signals that activate your amygdala—your emotional fire alarm.”
Consult Your Subconscious
In her book Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety, and More, Dr. Heitler discusses an emotional reset that requires the assistance of an energy healer. First you are asked to access the sensitivity of your amygdala, rating it on a scale of 0-10 (0 being no reaction to minor stimuli; 10 being supercharged reactions to minor stimuli).
According to Heitler, most people rate themselves between 3 and 5. Those who know they have a quick temper will rate themselves in the 8-10 range. A 6 or 7 self-rating, she says, signals moderately excessive over-reactivity.
An experienced healer will then utilize muscle kinesiology to identify how your subconscious assesses the reactivity of your amygdala. “Usually, your self-assessment and what the healer finds will be the same or in a similar range,” Heitler reports.
Using a magnet, the healer will then invoke the power of intention and move it along the meridian that runs from the top of your head down your spine, requesting that your subconscious reset your emotional reactivity to a more optimal level. This is repeated until the healer feels your subconscious has reached an optimal level.
Heitler acknowledges that the technique is experimental and that the procedure will need to be repeated for several days after the initial emotional reset, and then again after a longer period of time until the new level becomes stabilized. She also stresses the importance of traditional therapy in combination with the amygdala reset work.
“A therapist can help you with finding new solutions to situations that in the past have triggered excessive anger, anxiety, or fear. With your new and calmer emotional state, problem-solving becomes more effective, which in turn can generate further feelings of calm and wellbeing.”
Discover more about the amygdala and how we can rewire our brains to develop healthier habits.