NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, May 5, 2022

How Experiential Therapy Can Help You to Overcome Emotional Hijacking

In my last two articles, What is Emotional Hijacking? and Self Help Tips to Cope with Emotional Hijacking, I defined this phenomenon and provided self help tools.  

In this article I'm focusing on how experiential therapy, which is a bottom up therapeutic approach, can help you to overcome emotional hijacking (see my article:  What's the Difference Between Top Down and Bottom Up Approaches to Therapy?)

How Experiential Therapy Can Help You to Overcome Emotional Hijacking

An emotional hijack occurs when the part of the brain called the amygdala, which is an emotional processor, bypasses (or hijacks) your normal reasoning process.  

Although normally your decision making occurs in other parts of the brain, the amygdala takes over during certain circumstances.

There are times when using self help tools aren't enough, especially when unresolved trauma gets activated over and over again.  

At that point, it's important to get help from a therapist who uses experiential therapy to help clients overcome trauma (see my article: Why Experiential Therapy is More Effective For Trauma Than Regular Talk Therapy).

Clinical Vignette
The following clinical vignette illustrates how an experiential approach in therapy helps a client who has unresolved trauma.  As always, this is a composite of many different cases without identifying information.

At the encouragement of his wife, Glen, 38, sought help in therapy.  

During the prior six months, he began feeling irritable and anxious.  He told his therapist that he started a new job, and his director, John, was highly critical of Glen and all of Glen's colleagues.  

John justified his criticism by saying he believed it would encourage the sales team to work harder (see my article: Coping With a Difficult Boss).

Glen's colleagues, who worked for John for several years, shrugged off John's criticism because they said, even though he was critical, he usually rewarded them with bonuses and merit raises at the end of the year, which was all they cared about. As a result, most of them didn't take John's comments that seriously.

But Glen couldn't shrug it off the way his colleagues did.  He felt deeply wounded by John's remarks--even though, privately, John assured Glen that he thought he was doing a good job.

Whenever John criticized Glen in a staff meeting, Glen felt like he froze emotionally--he couldn't even think straight, which meant he couldn't respond to John's statements or questions.  He felt like something so overpowering came over him emotionally that he felt like he was no longer in the room.

Afterwards, when he had a chance to calm himself, he couldn't understand why he had such severe reactions to John's comments while his colleagues took John's negative comments to them in stride.

Even on his days off, Glen had a hard time letting go of John's criticism, and this affected his relationship with his wife, Barbara.  He no longer wanted to get together with their friends or do the things they usually both enjoyed.  

After watching Glen's mood get worse over time, Barbara told him that he needed to get help. 

When Glen's therapist asked him about his family background, he described a mother who was emotionally distant and a father who was critical and hard to please.  

Until he said this, Glen hadn't made the connection between his current boss and his critical father (see my article: Reacting to the Present Based on Your Traumatic Past).

His therapist explained the concept of emotional hijacking to Glen.  When they did an Affect Bridge to trace the origin of the emotional hijacking, Glen traced it back to his early childhood when his father would often humiliate him in front of his friends--similar to how John humiliated him in staff meetings.  

Based on Glen's response to the Affect Bridge, his therapist recommended that they address his unresolved trauma using EMDR Therapy as well as Ego States therapy.

Using these experiential therapies, over time, they gradually worked on Glen's current triggers, his past triggers and his apprehension about the future.  

Once Glen worked through the past and present triggers and his fears about the future, he no longer felt emotionally hijacked at work.  He also no longer ruminated about his director's critical comments when he was at home.  In addition, his mood improved substantially, and he once again enjoyed his social activities and interests with his wife and friends.

He also decided he deserved to work in a healthier work environment, so he found another job which had a positive work environment with a boss who was much more encouraging.

Unresolved trauma can get triggered in new situations in your personal life as well as in your work environment.  

These triggers can cause you to feel like you're being emotionally hijacked to the point where your logical brain shuts down temporarily.

An experiential approach in therapy is more effective than regular talk therapy in resolving trauma.  

Getting Help in Therapy
If you find that your efforts to cope with emotional hijacking aren't working, you could benefit from working with a trauma therapist who uses experiential therapy (What is a Trauma Therapist?).

Rather than struggling on your own, seek help so you can live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many individuals and couples to resolve trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.