The Emotional Hijacking of Oscar Winner Will Smith

For those who saw it, it was quite the spectacle.

At the 2022 Oscars awards presentation, after host Chris Rock made a joke that drew focus to award-winning actor Will Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett, Smith got up out of his chair and on live TV he walked on stage and slapped Chris Rock across the face.

Chris Rock, to say the least, was stunned. So was the audience. No one really knew how to react.

Rock, who was on stage in front of millions of people, tried to regather himself after the incident. While attempting to redirect himself back to the script, he nervously fumbled his words while introducing the presenters of the award for best documentary.

So what was happening to Will Smith at that moment? At first he seemed to be smiling at the joke. Then when he saw the reaction of his wife, something changed.

There’s a good chance the celebrated actor had an emotional hijacking.

Smith later admitted he probably went into a protective rage as he connected to his wife’s disappointment and hurt. At that moment when all of the emotion inside of him combined like a lethal cocktail of noxious gases, his thinking brain probably shut down.

This is not to judge or evaluate Smith’s behavior, but to try to explain what may have happened to him emotionally in that moment.

Emotional explosions like that are neural hijackings. Brain research suggests that at those moments, the emotional part of the brain proclaims an emergency, recruiting the rest of the brain to its urgent agenda.

The hijacking occurs in an instant, triggering an emotional explosion that the thinking part of the brain cannot control. In fact, the thinking part of the brain does not fully calculate what is happening — let alone decide if it’s a good idea or not.

When Smith lost it and blew up at Rock, chances are he wasn’t considering where he was, who else was around, and what the impact or ramifications of his behavior would be. His thinking brain had temporarily checked out and his emotional brain overpowered all other processing.

Two things are usually going on inside your brain during an emotional hijacking: the emotional part of your brain is triggered and the thinking part of your brain — which usually keeps your emotional response in balance — shuts down.

At these moments your rational mind is swamped by your emotions.

Brain research indicates that an emotional hijacking has a significant impact on all parts of your brain. Your brain states shift and your sense of time is now distorted. In fact, there’s a good chance that your functional IQ in that moment has decreased as well.

The emotional system of your brain can act independently of the thinking part. Some of your emotional reactions can be formed without any conscious, cognitive thought at all.

That can make you feel powerless.

So what can stop an emotional hijacking? How can you retake control of your raging brain?

The key in that emotional moment is to find ways to engage the thinking part of your brain, which acts as your emotional manager. The path to engaging the thinking part of your brain starts with noticing what’s happening in your body first and finding ways to calm yourself down.

You feel your emotions in your body first.

For instance, in the heat of that emotional moment, you can notice that your heart begins to race, your body begins to perspire, you feel muscle tension or something else is changing with your body sensations.

Then your thoughts kick in. It’s the combination of what you’re feeling in your body at that moment and then your automatic thoughts that then turn into your emotions.

So the key is to stop the emotional hijacking before it even begins.

Once you start to feel your body reacting to what’s happening around you, there are things you can do to prevent your thoughts from causing an emotional explosion.

As an example, my go-to strategy to try to prevent an emotional hijacking is BMR — breathe, mantra, then refocus. I can do that in 60 seconds or less.

Breathe - When I start to feel emotionally flooded by feeling my body sensations changing, two or three deep intentional breaths down to my diaphragm (belly) activates the calming part of my central nervous system.

Mantra - While doing that, I recall and recite short positive mantras to myself to shift my negative thinking to at least neutral non-emotional ones.

Refocus - I then use some quick mindful techniques to refocus on a more healthy outcome or reaction.

Now, it would be unfair and disrespectful to suggest what Smith should’ve done in that situation to be able to handle his reaction in a more thoughtful way. Everybody’s different in their reactions and emotional thought process.

The emotion that Smith felt for his wife at that moment was obviously powerful. Each person is different in terms of their emotional and mental health landscape at the time of an emotional explosion and their ability in that moment to have ways to calm themselves quickly when feeling emotionally flooded or hijacked.

But you have the power to control your emotional thoughts, rather than your emotional thoughts controlling you.

You can develop some predetermined things to do when you get into the heat of that emotional moment.

You can empower yourself with ways to better understand what happens in your brain and body when you’re feeling emotionally flooded — and then what to do.

And then you can create quick ways to keep your thinking brain engaged when things start to stir you up.

🔥 Stop YOUR emotional hijacking by creating your FREE Personal Stress Plan — quick, simple ways to engage your thinking brain in the heat of a stressful moment.

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Marty Wolner is a certified trauma and stress healer and impact coach (17 years) who has helped hundreds of adults and children heal from emotional adversity.

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Marty Wolner

Marty Wolner

Marty Wolner is a certified trauma and stress healer and impact coach (17 years) who has helped hundreds of adults and children heal from emotional adversity.

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