Anxiety and the Brain, Part 7: Learning the Language of the Amygdala.

We now know that the amygdala is a big player when it comes to anxiety, but how do you understand something that you have no control over?

If you want to understand someone who is speaking a foreign language, you learn the language or find a way to communicate, otherwise you won’t have a clue what the person is trying to tell you.  The same goes for the amygdala; to understand it we need to learn its language.

To start with, it is important to know that the amygdala has pre-programmed responses from the day we are born and it is ready to work from day one.  From this point it constantly learns and changes based on your day-to-day experiences.

Remember – it notices things we don’t.

The best way to look at the amygdala is as your protector.  If we go back to the pre-historic times, we needed something that would keep us safe straight away as part of a safety mechanism.  The problem is that the amygdala can overreact and make us respond to situations that aren’t actually dangerous.

Guard - Photo by Kutan Ural on Unsplash

Public speaking is one of our biggest fears, but why would the amygdala want to protect us from a situation that isn’t actually dangerous?

This is where a pre-historic amygdala is not very helpful; it may be that it wants to protect us from being vulnerable and being observed by potentially hostile animals, this could include other humans.  Other humans reactions can vary to the extreme, so not knowing how they are going to react could be seen as a dangerous, vulnerable situation.

Let’s bring in the cortex at this point.  Because the amygdala works on its own timetable, the cortex may try to come up with reasons for our behaviour, the problem is that these may be accurate, but they could also be way off the mark, and can have a huge effect on you.

The more you dwell on the cortex-based explanations and try to make sense of your responses, the more anxiety you create; it is a double whammy.

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If you remember that your amygdala is trying to protect you then this will help reduce the levels of anxiety.  If you use the cortex to understand this rather than come up with a million and one reasons why, then you are starting to understand the language of the amygdala.

Let’s say for some reason you have a pounding heart and your breathing increases but there does not appear to be any obvious danger; just understanding that this is the amygdala at work, preparing your body for fight or flight can help, and that an alarm in your body has been set off for no reason at all.

Unfortunately it is not just enough to use your cortex to convince yourself that a situation isn’t dangerous; a more effective approach is to use deep breathing techniques and strategies that retrain the amygdala.

How does the amygdala decide what is dangerous?

Danger - Photo by Nicolas Cool on Unsplash

Evolution may play a big part in this because some fears seem pre-programmed.  As I mentioned, the amygdala is ready to work from the day we are born; we seem to know that certain things are dangerous such as snakes, heights and angry facial expressions.

Even though some fears are pre-programmed, it does not mean that they cannot be changed.  We develop new fears as we grow older, and this is the result of experience.

Based on our experiences, the amygdala will create an emotional memory to it that we will not be aware of; these can either be positive memories or a negative ones.

Fight, Flight or Freeze:

These are the main physical responses to a dangerous situation, and at times they can save our lives.  If the central nucleus overreacts when no logical reason for fear exists, then this can cause a panic attack.

“Once it initiates a panic attack, the central nucleus of the amygdala is in control and the cortex has very little influence.”

The response to a panic attack can be very aggressive, some people will run away and others will freeze.  I tend to follow the latter when I panic, the fear almost paralyses my body and I end up curled up on the floor with my eyes shut; no amount of talking or consoling will break this response, my mind and body have to slowly release which can take anything from a few minutes to half an hour.

How do we exercise control over the amygdala?

Controls 2 - Photo by Chris Leipelt on Unsplash

The ‘language’ of the amygdala, it is not words or thoughts, but emotions; and the focus is on danger and safety.

“The amygdala’s language is based on experience, it’s a language based on quick actions and responses.”

ASSOCIATION is an essential part of the process; in any threatening situation the amygdala works to identify sensory information associated with danger.  It responds in very specific ways to sensory information associated with positive and negative events which occur at the same time.

Emotional Learning in the Lateral Nucleus of the Amygdala.

Any object can cause anxiety through associated-based learning; all that is required is for that object to be experienced at about the same time as a threatening event that activates the lateral nucleus.  The lateral nucleus connects sensory information from a situation with the emotion of fear.

Once the connection has been made you will feel anxious whenever the amygdala recognises similar sensory information.

When people talk about anxiety, they will mention TRIGGERS, this refers to anything that sets off the amygdala’s alarm response.  They can include events, sights, sounds, smells, objects and much more.

Any object can become a trigger, even something that is as harmless as a teddy bear, and this is when anxiety does not necessarily make logical sense (see the ‘Useful Examples of Amygdala-based Anxiety’ post.)  The strength of the reaction can vary depending on the experience.  This also means that the amygdala’s responses are not always negative; you may receive a present from a loved one, and good responses are generated each time you see the gift.

Some of the associations are easier to avoid than others but it won’t make the anxiety go away; you could avoid a trigger for months or even years and if you come into contact with it again the response will still be there.  In order to reduce or eliminate the fear or panic you need to retrain the amygdala.

We will visit this in the next blog.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Referenced: Rewire Your Anxious Brain – how to use the neuroscience of fear to end anxiety, panic & worry.  By Catherine M. Pittman, PhD & Elizabeth M. Karle, MLIS

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