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How the Amygdala Affects Anxiety

The amygdala is a set of small, almond-shaped clusters of nuclei near the base of your brain. These almond-shaped clusters are the most active when you experience fear or aggression, due to the fact that they are responsible for triggering the body’s fight or flight response.

Anxiety and panic attacks occur when environmental or emotional stressors convince your amygdala that you are in danger. This article will discuss the reactions the amygdala sets off in your body, the reasons behind anxiety attacks that start in the amygdala, and what you can do to keep your amygdala from setting off a chain reaction of panic when there’s nothing to be anxious about.

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The Chain Reaction of Anxiety

The amygdala is the starting point for your fear and anxiety reactions. It should be noted that having anxiety doesn't mean anything is wrong with your amygdala. Take my free 7 minute anxiety test to learn more about how your anxiety works. The amygdala’s direct and indirect effects on the body are listed and described below.

  • Catalyst First there is usually an emotional or environmental trigger: obsessive negative thoughts, or something you see, smell, hear, taste, or feel. Note that the trigger can also be inside you. You may not always know exactly what's triggering it. The subconscious mind is a very real thing.
  • Amygdala Reacts The amygdala reacts to the catalyst by preparing you to fight or run away. Triggers that are related to emotional past experiences produce stronger reactions in the amygdala, which (along with being responsible for fight or flight) is also believed to regulate long-term memory storage based on the strength of the emotions associated with a remembered event.
  • Adrenal Action Preparation for fight or flight involves the release of the adrenal chemical epinephrine into the bloodstream. Epinephrine is associated with adrenaline, and makes all your bodily processes speed up.
  • Blood Sugar The epinephrine released also has the side effect of raising blood sugar levels in the body. The blood sugar is then available to the muscles and can be converted into quick energy.
  • Shaking Shaking encourages blood to reach the extremities and can also be the result of the extra energy in the body.
  • Pounding Heart Epinephrine boosts the heart rate, which sends extra blood to power the body.
  • Flushing Extra blood from the heart that the muscles don’t use shows up as a red tinge in the face, neck, arms and/or chest.
  • Faster Breathing Rate As your heart rate climbs, your lungs have to work faster to make sure the blood circulating in the body is supplied with enough oxygen.
  • Aching Chest Your lungs and heart working harder than normal can cause your chest to ache.

The amygdala wants to keep you safe. It's processes are specifically designed to keep you out of danger. But when it regularly overreacts, it becomes an anxiety disorder. Why, we must then ask, does the amygdala overreact in people with anxiety? In order to address this problem, we must examine various theories that have been put forward about the root cause of anxiety disorders.

Is Your Amygdala to Blame?

Though the amygdala is responsible for triggering the above symptoms, the reason why the amygdala becomes more active in some people in response to irrational beliefs and negative memories than in others is not well understood. However, there are several theories as to why anxiety disorders occur:

  • Theory 1: Long-term environmental stress causes chemical changes in the brain. Studies have suggested that people who have experienced long-term environmental stress develop chemical imbalances. It's likely that these imbalances trigger the amygdala reaction.
  • Theory 2: Psychological disorders cause physical changes in the brain. Anxiety disorders, as well as other psychological disorders such as depression and bipolarity, may have the effect of shifting the actual physical structure of the brain (especially the regions that regulate mood). It is possible that the amygdala actually becomes weaker or more sensitive, causing these types of reactions.
  • Theory 3: _ Anxiety is hereditary._There is a lot of evidence that many anxiety disorders are passed down through genes. Although it should be noted that while it has been theorized that having one or more parents with an anxiety disorder may increase the likelihood of offspring having similar disorders, it is also possible that having parents with an anxiety disorder can predispose offspring to anxiety due to the high-anxiety environment they are raised in. Also, not all those that carry the gene will develop anxiety.

The bottom line for your amygdala is that while it plays a fundamental role in causing you to panic, it is not the sole cause of your anxiety. This lies in large part with your life experiences, which create the memories that the amygdala may react to with panic.

Can You Train Your Amygdala?

The amygdala is not a “thinking” part of your brain so much as it is a “reacting” part. Its role is not to figure out why you are afraid, but to alert you if bad memories support a fight or flight reaction, and, if they do, to cause that fight or flight reaction to take place.

For this reason, it is difficult when your amygdala has already been triggered to “talk yourself out of” the reaction. The amygdala doesn’t much care if your rational mind is saying there’s no real danger: it has reacted because other parts of your brain believe that there is.

It has been suggested that a possible way to “train” your amygdala is through a process called “fear exposure.” The theory behind it is that the amygdala (much like a dog) can’t be trained through logical explanations or reasoning, and must instead be trained through simple repetition.

By repeatedly exposing yourself to the triggers or catalysts of your anxiety and thereby “teaching” the amygdala that in reality nothing bad occurs because of this exposure, it is possible for the amygdala to “learn” and (ideally) stop producing the fight of flight reaction in response to that particular trigger altogether.

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Other Ways to Avoid Triggering the Amygdala

Apart from fear exposure, there are other ways to encourage the amygdala to remain calm. These involve decreasing the bodily and mental stressors within your control that contribute to how severely you react to external stressors outside of your control. Taking the steps below can help you to cultivate a healthier body and mind, and to decrease the frequency with which bad life experiences set off the amygdala’s fight or flight response.

  • Get Organized Chaos and disorganization in life can result in a multitude of stressors: being late for work or appointments, not being able to find important things when you need them, criticism from others about your disorganization or simply a feeling of guilt about not being organized can all strain you and put you on edge. Taking the time to sort and store things where you (and others) can find them when you want them will make you feel more confident and more in control of your life.
  • Create Routines Routines can be very important for people with anxiety. It is comforting in the midst of any given day, which is sure to be filled with unknowns, to be able to rely on a few stable factors such as eating meals at particular times, going for a daily walk, or reading every night before you go to bed. The stability of routines can help to counteract the anxious feelings that unexpected events may provoke and reaffirm your ability to live your life the way you want to.
  • Schedule Free Time Free time is a valuable and necessary thing that many people don’t believe they can afford. With work to do, bills to pay and errands to run pressuring you from the moment you wake up to the time you go to sleep, it can be hard to see how you can make any time for yourself. However, it is important to consider free time worth scheduling. Especially if you are someone with anxiety, free time gives you a chance to check in with yourself and see how you are feeling about various aspects of your life. If any of them are bothering you (whether it’s yourself you’d like to work on or external conflicts need to resolve), you can plan on putting energy into addressing them, rather than letting problems stew in the back of your mind and build into obsessive thought patterns.
  • Meditate (or Join a Meditation Group) Like free time, meditation gives you a chance to reflect on your life. It also gives you a chance to put aside your problems for a time and focus on simply “being.” This may sound like ignoring your problems, which it is not: meditation is all about learning disciplined thinking, which can help you to escape the negative thought spirals associated with your triggers that cause the amygdala to set off panic attacks.
  • Sleep Well Sleeping deeply for a healthy amount of time each day (8 to 9 hours for most people) is crucial to maintaining a healthy state of mind and body. Choose a bedtime and stick to it to help your mind learn to shut down at a certain hour. You should also sleep with all lights off (or while wearing a sleep mask) and avoid any caffeinated substances for at least four hours before bed to promote REM sleep. REM sleep and lots of it allows your body to recharge during the night and gives your mind a much-deserved break.
  • Eat Well Eating a regular and healthy diet is necessary to replenish your body when anxiety has sapped its resources. It is a good way to keep your body feeling fit and healthy (when accompanied by appropriate physical exercise: namely, 30 minutes of sustained exercise 3 times a week), which can contribute to how capable you feel of coping with problems in life. It can also help to regulate your heart rate, keeping high heart rates caused by anxiety from endangering your health and even your life.

Even though you can’t see or feel it, there’s a lot you can do to help keep that small, almond shaped bit of your brain in check when you find that it’s working overtime. Taking care of your body and mind is the first step you should take. Once you do this, you will be better prepared to face the stressors in your life and hopefully retrain your amygdala to stop reacting to the non-threatening stimuli that produce anxiety.

For a more comprehensive strategy that will teach you and your mind how to cope with anxiety better, make sure that you take my free 7 minute anxiety test. This test is a great way to learn more about your anxiety and find out how to solve it.

Start the test here.

Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.

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