The Amygdala

I wanted to turn to something more elemental this week. Which is that we are biologically programmed to feel fear. Isn’t that wild? And it’s not a bad thing.

The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped structure located in the temporal lobes of the brain. It plays a key role in processing and regulating emotions, especially fear.

The amygdala is made up of several nuclei, each with its own unique functions and connections to other parts of the brain. One of the primary functions of the amygdala is to process and interpret sensory information, such as what we hear, see, and smell, and determine whether they are threatening or not.

When the amygdala detects a potential threat, it activates the body’s “fight or flight” response, which triggers a rollout of physiological changes designed to help us respond to danger. This response is biologically engrained and it’s essential for our survival, to protect ourselves from danger.

However, it doesn’t always get triggered by actual danger. Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night because of a strange sound? Your heart rate and breathing increase, your pupils dilate, and your muscles tense up, all in preparation to defend yourself if needed. That’s your amygdala at work – getting you ready. Only you find out it was just the heat turning on and you soothe yourself back to sleep.

When the amygdala is triggered by non-threatening stimuli, such as social cues or past traumatic experiences, it leads to excessive or inappropriate fear and anxiety. This can majorly influence how we experience conversations or circumstances and plays a key role in social behavior and interpersonal relationships.

I believe learning to regulate and manage the activity of the amygdala is an essential life skill. It’s said that one of the most effective methods is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps individuals identify and challenge negative thoughts and beliefs that may be triggering the amygdala and to develop new coping strategies.

I’ve personally worked with CBT for years to help me manage my diagnosed OCD, and it’s had a tremendous impact on me. In case you don’t know, OCD is connected to fear because it is often characterized by persistent, intrusive thoughts or images that lead to anxiety (fear) and trigger compulsive behaviors aimed at reducing that anxiety. With CBT you can start to get a handle on that and interrupt the intrusive thought-anxiety-compulsion pattern.

Somatic therapy is also incredibly powerful to help us recognize when we’re triggered and then explore and heal that connection as much as we can.

Mindfulness meditation, which involves focusing on the present moment without judgment, has also been shown to reduce amygdala activation and improve emotional regulation. I’ve been a more intermittent meditator than a regular practitioner but I’m keen to catch that train too.

It seems clear that the more we understand our amygdala the more we can understand fear as natural and just a part of experience. And the more able we’ll be, in most circumstances, to allow that fear to rip through our body and not take direct action on it because it’s not warranted at the moment.

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