Emotional Hijacking: How Connecting to Old Hurts Heals Us

Beautiful woman doing different expressions in different sets of clothesThe key to having freedom and joy in our lives stems directly from managing our emotions rationally and effectively. Practicing emotional intelligence keeps us intimately connected with our thoughts and their emotional correlates.

However, sometimes certain habits or life occurrences block us from thriving. Understanding these roadblocks can move us one step closer to healing.

It can be argued that we choose our emotions based on what we think. This notion can be a bit of a misnomer. If we can’t point to the thought or belief with awareness—meaning be conscious of it—can we really say we’ve chosen the emotion in question? I think it’s fair to say no. Psychology has long explored human behavior through the stimulus response theory. Basically, it states that we respond to things (or behave) according to the stimuli presented to us. The challenge with this theory is how to incorporate our personal make-up, decision making, and level of personal awareness into this model and show how they all interact with a stimulus to produce a response.

Practicing emotional intelligence requires patience, determination, and strength. All of these qualities are required when learning to “sit with” our emotions. To fully feel emotions that have long been ignored or resisted can prove quite painful. When we don’t have a loving relationship toward our emotions, we can turn them into bad guys or bogeymen we avoid. Ignoring our emotions in this fashion prevents us from fully recognizing what sorts of beliefs and views we hold. This pattern can develop further into chronic, overreactive emotional responses that may not make sense based on the stimuli present.

A concept that explains this situation is called emotional hijacking. Emotional hijacking occurs when a stimulus activates the “emotional brain” and causes a person to react before that information reaches the neo-cortex. If the information doesn’t reach or get processed by the neo-cortex, reasoning around/with the stimulus in question doesn’t take place. This is important to recognize, as it describes why so many of us feel blindsided and overcome by our emotions. It also explains why so many of us perceive, long after the fact, that an emotion was “irrational.”

While we “choose” our emotions in the sense that what we think leads to what we feel, it’s important to recognize that emotional hijacking is a real phenomenon.

Trauma fits nicely into the concept of emotional hijacking. People who have experienced trauma can find themselves emotionally hijacked on a regular basis. The moment of the traumatic event, the person may have feared for his or her life or safety. Furthermore, he or she may have been unable to get out of the situation and unable to discharge the intense emotional charge of fear and helplessness generated in the moment. This charge gets stuck in the body. Left unprocessed, it can lead to depression, anxiety, and of course emotional hijacking.

Another core aspect of trauma is the formation of mental walls blocking connection with the original hurt. Consciously or unconsciously, a traumatized person learns to avoid anything that may trigger further emotional distress. You can see here that awareness of one’s thoughts isn’t sufficient for healing. One must also learn to re-experience those pent-up emotions in a safe and healthy manner.

While we “choose” our emotions in the sense that what we think leads to what we feel, it’s important to recognize that emotional hijacking is a real phenomenon. When we actively avoid connecting with old hurts and traumas, we set ourselves up for more pain in the future. This two-step process of connecting with our emotions on a bodily level and with the thoughts to which they are connected increases our chances for healing. Learning to acknowledge and eventually accept these emotions helps us live fuller lives.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Joshua Nash, LPC-S, Anger Management Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Rene

    October 22nd, 2015 at 12:28 PM

    Logically it would seem that it would make the most sense to leave all of those past hurts behind us but I guess that that is if and only if we have found resolution with them and are now willing to move forward past them.

  • Melanie

    October 24th, 2015 at 9:18 AM

    I would love to leave it all behind me. I’d like to forget but I can’t. I know it changes the way your brain is developing when your a child and it leads to illness later on. It’s something that can’t be fixed it seems. I would just like some normalcy. I used to have the gift of the gab, I used to go towards people as a child. It changed everything and it’s not fair.

  • Dee

    October 24th, 2015 at 9:38 PM

    Hi Melanie, so sorry you had to experience such trauma as a child. It does of course impact on our brain development when we are young. I was raised in a situation of alcoholism and domestic violence. I became an adult with huge scars to deal with. Something that has given me hope is knowing about neuro plasticity – that over time, with help and therapy, our brain can actually be altered. It takes time and it’s not easy but I believe it is possible to rewire ourselves and even create new neurological pathways. It takes a lot of determination but it’s worth it. You deserve to be happy and have a life that’s not overshadowed by the past. History cannot be rewritten but a new future can be created. I am still a work in progress and always will be but I have managed to move forward in my own life. I am the only member of my family that isn’t wrapped up in substance abuse. I got a degree against the odds. I have two very happy and healthy children. I just wawanted to offer you some hope and encouragement. Best wishes. Dee

  • Melanie

    October 25th, 2015 at 1:13 PM

    Thank you,this sounds like what I was looking for. Neuro plasticity. I will look this up.

  • Randall

    October 22nd, 2015 at 5:39 PM

    old habits die hard

  • wendy d

    October 23rd, 2015 at 8:06 AM

    When you have been through a traumatic experience, no matter how successfully you may think that you have hidden or maybe even dealt with the pain, there will always be those times when feel it creeping back up on you again. It is almost like it feels as if it is stalking you, waiting for you to have a great moment but then it will bring you down again. It’s not a pleasant feeling, believe me.

  • Melanie

    October 24th, 2015 at 9:19 AM

    So true.

  • Melanie

    October 24th, 2015 at 9:29 AM

    I think it wasn’t consciously hiding it as a child. More forgetting and not understanding what it means.
    But it got to be so repetitive you can’t forget it. I seemed ok. Then puberty hit. It’s just getting an off feeling and it’s not being gay. It just doesn’t feel that great.

  • Melanie

    October 23rd, 2015 at 6:44 PM

    How do you correct this? My teenage neighbor abused me as a child. I have problems. I have trouble being intimate. I can’t achieve orgasm with my partner. When I was a teenager I became ver withdrawn. I had difficulty kissing my boyfriend. I turned to alcohol for a long period of time. Then to top that off at 22 I was a victim of an armed robbery. So I did not get to finish my last year of university. I’m in a severe depression or something and I’m heavily medicated.
    I get out of depression and slip back in. I gained weight. I feel like I ‘m my own shadow.
    I’ve seen Doctor, psychiatrist, psychologist. It’s expensive, it’s time consuming. I don’t get to be cured,medication is added. When I feel decent back to work until next time. Guess they aren’t allowed to say your brain chemistry is altered you need pills til you die. At least then I’d know.
    How do you fix these mental blocks? I would like to get over it. Instead of getting there with my partner I would just feel intense pain. I don’t understand. I’d be like ok that’s enough get off of me.
    Nobody is comfortable enough to talk for real with me. I can get off by myself but not with my friend.
    And I’d like to dominate.but kind of aggresively. It’s apparently a big glitch for men. They want to feel like they did it I guess.

  • Joshua N.

    October 24th, 2015 at 5:09 AM


    One thing I always remind my clients of is the fact that we’ve built our unhealthy habits up over years and decades. We must to be patient and kind to ourselves while working to untangle those habits and build healthier ones.

    I strongly encourage you to find a counselor you feel comfortable with. Abuse and trauma take root in the body and can negatively impact our lives for years. You can learn to heal yourself, but you must dedicate some time and energy to it.

    Take Care,


  • Cade

    October 24th, 2015 at 6:39 AM

    There is nothing about my past that I choose to relive and there is nothing that I think could be gained by ever forcing me to go through it again.

  • Allyson

    October 25th, 2015 at 8:43 AM

    I have already survived the Trama. The only thing left are the memories and I have found they can’t hurt me if I have processed them in a safe place.

  • Jenn

    October 26th, 2015 at 7:04 AM

    It just struck me as I was reading this that I guess I always thought that this was something that was supposed to come naturally but evidently I have to practice keeping focused and not allowing all of these emotions to flood my mind all at once. Duh! Makes so much sense, but I think that I had already given all of this over to what was “supposed to be” without ever thinking that I had any effect on it with the things that I was willing to do or not to do. I think that I just wanted to give up having any responsibility over it when actually the things that I do in my life directly impact how I feel.

  • snyder

    October 27th, 2015 at 7:58 AM

    It is all a matter of being at peace with the things that come our way in life. It throws you lemons, make some lemonade. Simplistic, and not always applicable, but definitely a great guide to try to follow.

  • amy h

    October 28th, 2015 at 8:01 AM

    This is something that happens to all of us from time to time. We feel totally blindsided and then we react like we normally wouldn’t have and don’t even see that until far after the fact

  • Julir

    December 2nd, 2015 at 10:19 PM

    Mom died 5 years ago in March. Dad died this year in September. Everything changed when mom died and I hate it, hate it, hate it. I’m not close to my younger brother. He would say to get over it. My dad told me same thing after my mom passed. Nobody understands. I feel the family broke apart when mom died and now that dad is gone it’s going to stay the same horrible way because my brothers want it that way. No one takes my grief and sense of having no control over my emotions, thoughts, feelings etc seriously. Younger brother doesn’t care. Older brother doesn’t understand. I have no support group. I am alone. I want to die but my son… I have to think of him. He is 30. He doesn’t understand me but he is not lecturing me anymore about the way I should feel. He accepts, v finally, that I have depression and there is nothing he can do to fix it. I miss my mom the most. The pain will never go away. Holidays are constant reminders if how the family fell apart when she died. It is my dad’s fault and my younger brother hates me.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    December 3rd, 2015 at 9:22 AM

    Hi Julir,

    We applaud your courage to share your thoughts here. We just wanted to reach out and say that you may benefit from simply talking with someone in a safe, non-judgmental space. If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, https://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area. If you’re looking for a counselor that practices a specific type of therapy, or who deals with specific concerns, you can complete an advanced search by clicking here: https://www.goodtherapy.org/advanced-search.html

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    Thinking of you and wishing you the best,
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