What is the Amygdala and its Role in Fear, Stress and Anxiety?
Throughout human history, our bodies have evolved to be better equipped for survival. A major aspect of our natural instincts is our ‘fight or flight’ response that reacts to potential dangers in the environment. Our Amygdalae would fire off stress hormones in so that we automatically respond to whatever danger was lurking. This was a protective mechanism when humans lived in the deep depths of nature… but the world has changed.
Humans have now created their own environments where life is relatively safe compared to the wild. But these survival instincts fire off and cause stress and anxiety in situations that don’t call for such discomfort. Fear and anxiety can be triggered from talking to people or even from seeing a clown. Our amygdalae play a major role on these instincts that carry on and cause us fear and anxiety in the modern world.Today, we are going to explore why and how we can reprogram it.
What is the Amygdala?
The amygdala is a tiny, marble-sized cluster of cells which are located at the base of the brain. The name is Greek and it defines the shape, which is very much like an almond. We should also note that you have two amygdalae, one on each hemisphere of the brain. Both are in close proximity to your hippocampus towards the front portion of your temporal lobe.
Your amygdala helps in determining responses to your environment and this is especially the case where emotions are concerned. For thousands of years, we were under the constant threat of other tribes and wild animals. The Amygdala’s fight or flight response results in emotions like anger, fear and anxiety. This is generally automatic as the strong surge of emotion pushes us to either fight or run away.
The brain’s frontal lobes balance this mechanism out by processing the world around us to make sure that it is a real danger you need to act on right now. But then why is something like speaking to people considered a threat that causes extreme bouts of anxiety for some of us?
Although humans are safer than we have ever been from physical harm, modern life has its fair share of psychological threats that induce fear and anxiety.
Fear of losing a job (lose security of basic needs), fear of not being accepted (be shunned from society and try to survive alone). In essence, the threats are the same but with much less severity than the life and death situations of the past. And then there are fears of things like spiders, rats, clowns and many other things that shouldn’t evoke the kind of responses that they do. Part of the reason for this is: memory.
Amygdala’s Role in Memory
We have recently learned the amygdala plays a role in the classification of memories as being negative or positive. It makes sense considering that the amygdala classifies something as a threat before it invokes specific emotions such as fear. From then on, that becomes a learned response to the ‘potential danger’ and will manifest immediately whenever you encounter it. It could be as simple as seeing a mouse pass by you for the first time and your amygdala perceiving it as a danger that must be avoided. Now, you are forever afraid of mice!
There were experiments with mice that involved playing a certain tone right before shocking their feet. Over a number of repeated tries, the mice would associate that tone with the foot shock and react with fear and panic. We humans aren’t so different as we stack up many fearful associations to certain kinds of stimuli ranging from seeing spiders in our garage to speaking to strangers. You could have had a negative experience in the past while speaking to a stranger and from then on, your amygdala would pose strangers as potential threats that induce stress and anxiety.
It was initially believed that all anxiety and fear was the result of a hyperactive amygdala. There were studies of monkeys with underactive or no amygdala at all that would have no reaction to snakes or other threatening stimuli. So it would make sense to attribute fear and anxiety as being the result of amygdala complications but the truth is more complicated than that.
The ‘Cognitive Brain’ and the ‘Emotional Brain’
While the amygdala is a strong component in fear, stress, and anxiety, we cannot blame this portion of the brain alone. This is because there are many other parts of the brain involved in anxiety that some would consider as the brain’s ‘fear network’.
Let’s say that we divide the brain into a ‘cognitive brain’ and an ‘emotional’ brain. Your frontal lobe is where your thoughts and experiences all come together into one united orchestra and is considered your cognitive brain in this theory. The amygdala is part of your emotional brain.
In this theory, anxiety occurs when your emotional brain overrides your cognitive brain. Let’s say that you see a bear in the woods. Your emotional brain is going to flood you with fear and adrenaline and it makes total sense that it would in that moment. It’s a necessary response to try to keep you from getting eaten.
Now let’s say heard that there are bears in the woods and you go camping or hunting anyways. You are relaxed and not anxious about the possibility of encountering bears. You know this is only a possibility and have educated yourself enough to know that the bears in these woods are not hostile and would more than likely avoid you anyways. This is because your cognitive brain is in control and overriding the emotional brain. A portion of your frontal lobe called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex actually dampens ‘fear’ signals. It is a necessary balance to keep you grounded.
Anxiety itself, however, is more a matter of different parts of the brain reporting and responding on stimuli and ‘arguing’ about what to do. Basically, your cognitive and emotional brain disagreeing with each other and causing tension within the mind. When the amygdala (emotional brain) ‘wins’ the argument then we get overreactions to situations which a psychologist named Daniel Goleman calls an ‘amygdala hijack’.
What is an Amgydala Hijack?
Simply put, an amygdala hijack is when your amygdala takes control over how you respond to anxiety, stress, or fear. It represses instructions from the frontal lobe to calm down and assess the situation, provoking a fearful or aggressive response to the situation.
What is happening at this point is that the adrenal glands are releasing two stress hormones, known as cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol has many roles, but in this scenario is basically to prepare you for fight or flight, while adrenaline gives you that ‘boost’ to respond. Typical symptoms of its approach will include rapid heartbeat, goosebumps, and sweaty palms.
Amygdala Hijacks happen far too often in our modern day lives for what are not life or death situations. Do we really want to start panicking if we have to speak to a person handling the cash register? Or screech abruptly if we see a cockroach in our living room floor? This is due to negative mental associations created over one’s life and often… damage developed in one’s amygdala. Over or under stimulation of our amygdala can lead to damage in the amygdala which can either cause us to be overly fearful and anxious or have much less access to emotion at all. Can this be reprogrammed?
Amygdala Hijacks May be Moderately Managed with Practice
Thankfully, there are things that can be done in the case of an impending amygdala hijack. The trick is in doing things that produce a lot of activity in the frontal lobe.
A very simple way to reverse a current amygdala hijack is by beginning to focus on your breath and do some pranayama.
Pranayama is simply done by taking a deep breath for 4 seconds, then hold your breath for 6 seconds, then exhale for 4 seconds… and hold your breath for 6 seconds, then breath again for 4 seconds and continue that going for several minutes.
You can also follow this video we made on Pranayama to help get you into that rhythm.
If you do this while focusing on the breath, you will override the amygdala’s panic state and gain control of a situation. I would suggest practicing this on a daily basis so that you can easily do it during such situations. It also grounds you, fills you with energy and increases focus. It is generally a great technique for releasing pent up stress and emotions.
An even better way to not only reverse an amygdala hijack but also heal and improve your amygdala, is through listening to our Amygdala Healing Audio.
What this does is work on the amygdala by healing lesions, damage degeneration by inducing stem cell production and removal of scar tissue. Stored fear memories will be released and also negative mind and body associations. Finally, the field repairs the serotonin receptors in the amygdalae.
All in all, this field covers a wide range of emotional and mental issues. Many such issues stem from over or under stimulation of the amygdala. This field works on permanently healing the amygdala and restoring it back to its natural state which… in turn can help bring you back to your natural mental/emotional state.
Although listening the audio does it automatically, it helps to also focus on the things that cause you fear or anxiety, so that you consciously release those fearful memories and negative mind/body associations from your being.
We hope that you’ve enjoyed this exploration of the amygdala and its role in fear, anxiety, and stress. It is rather annoying to have to experience amygdala hijacks in unnecessary situations. I do believe through healing the amygdala and releasing stored up negative and fearful associations, we can begin to be more at easy in life’s day to day circumstances.
and through pranayama and our Amygdala audio, one can overit seems quite likely that once we fully understand the amygdala, we’ll certainly have a much better foothold in the battle with anxiety. Only time will tell.