The amygdala are a pair of small, almond-shaped clusters of nuclei near the base of your brain.
The function of the amygdala is that it assesses the emotional significance of things that happen in your environment, and in particular it assesses whether or not something in your environment is a threat to you.
It the amygdala decides that a car speeding towards you on the street is in danger of hitting you, or that there is a rattlesnake coiled up on the boulder sitting next to your front door, it will initiate your body’s fight or flight response as a means of helping you respond to a perceived threat.
The flight or fight response is a healthy part of our biology that is designed to ensure our survival and safety by preparing us to get out of dangerous situations safely, one way or another.
However, when your fight or flight response remains switched on when there is no danger, or if it gets switched on too easily, again when there is no danger, then the flight or fight response will morph into and become prolonged anxiety and anxiety disorders.
In other words, there are healthy flight or fight responses, and there are unhealthy flight or fight responses.
The triggers that often cause you to have an unnecessary flight or fight response are your own thoughts, memories and emotions. You can become afraid of your own mind, and that will in and of itself trigger a fight or flight response and anxiety.
The Chain Reaction of Anxiety
The amygdala initiates the brain processes that create both fear and anxiety. It has long been known that animals without amygdala do not make fear responses. For example, rats who had their amygdala removed cuddled up with and showed no fear in the presence of cats — one of their natural predators.
Here’s how the amygdala creates fear. When the amygdala decides that you are facing a threat, it sends a signal — nerve impulses — to another part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus, in turn, activates the pituitary gland and the pituitary gland activates the adrenal gland. The adrenal gland secretes the hormones — adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol — that actually trigger fear and the fight or flight response.
The hormones that are released by the adrenal gland trigger a number of changes in your body that both make you feel afraid and trigger the fight or flight response. The bodily changes that are generated by adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol include:
- Your heart beats faster —— which increases the energy available for action
- You breath faster
- You feel flushed
- Your blood pressure increases — which increases the energy available for action
- The amount of sugar in your blood increases — which increases the energy available for action
- Tunnel vision — which focuses your attention on the danger at hand.
- Diversion of blood flow away from your digestive tract.
- Increased blood flow to your muscles to prepare you to take action.
All of these changes produced by the flight or fight response are healthy and adaptive in the face of real danger. They help you prepare to meet and respond successfully you any danger that you might encounter. However, when the flight or fight response persists and occurs in the absence of danger it becomes maladaptive and it creates a persistent anxiety that becomes the core of an anxiety disorders.
Fear and Anxiety
One way to think of the difference between: (1) a healthy and adaptive flight or fight response and (2) a maladaptive flight or fight response that generates persistent anxiety is to think of the difference between fear and anxiety.
Fear is an immediate response to a genuine danger in your environment. Anxiety is a persistent feeling of being at risk when there is no imminent danger. When anxiety persists in the absence of danger, it becomes a symptoms of an anxiety disorder.
The amygdala plays a definite role in generating fear and persistent anxiety, but it appears that it is another part of the brain — which has the difficult to remember name of the the Bed Nucleus of the Stria Terminalis (BSNT) — that plays a crucial key role in turning momentary fear into chronic anxiety. The BSNT is hyperactive in people who have anxiety disorders.
The important thing to understand here is that If you find yourself being afraid when there is nothing to be afraid of, then you might be suffering from an anxiety disorder, and it would be a good idea to consult a doctor to determine if you are.
Can Understanding the Amygdala Help Us Cure Anxiety?
As of now, the best ways to treat anxiety are by either cultivating mindfulness, doing meditation or doing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
However, there is some exciting new research that suggests that it will soon be possible to actually train the amygdala to respond more to positive memories and respond less to negative memories using the technology of biofeedback. In this therapeutic technique, the technology of either the EEG or an fMRI is actually used to show you the activity state of your amygdala. And then this allows you to learn how to decrease or increase the level of your amygdala activity.
These technologies are still in the research phase, but there is great hope that they will be available for general use in the near future.
Another possible treatment for anxiety that is still is the research phase, and that has been found to reduce anxiety is the use of training techniques that extinguish the fear response. The extinction of a fear response involves presenting a feared object or situation to a person in a completely safe setting. The idea is that a person learns that the feared object — say a spider or a gun — is not necessarily harmful, and their amygdala stops producing a fight or flight response to these objects.
Simple Steps to Reduce Anxiety in the Moment
Here are some simple things that you can do try to reduce anxiety in the moment.
- Take Deep Breaths and Slow Down Your Breathing: I can remember one time when I used deep and slow breathing to calm my anxiety while I was climbing a face to get over a high pass in the Himalaya. A thunderstorm came, and the lightning was so close that I could hear it sizzle. I was on a face, scared out of my wits and I was hyperventilating and gasping for breath. I got myself in hand by taking control of my breathing. I slowed my breath down and took deep breaths and survived the storm.
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.