Understanding the Amygdala

By Melissa Griffiths

Stress. Anxiety. Panic. It all starts with the amygdala.

The amygdala is an almond shaped component of the brain which plays a major role in how we process strong emotions, like fear. It attaches emotional significance to situations or objects and forms emotional memories, almost like post-it notes. 

When there is a perceived danger, the eyes or ears (or both) send information to the amygdala, which is responsible for emotional processing. The amygdala interprets the images and sounds and if it perceives a danger, it instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus which then activates the sympathetic nervous system (our fight or flight system). 

This all happens without us even thinking about it; the body is truly amazing. The challenge comes when it gets it wrong. This perception of danger is based on our history and experiences and sometimes it gets it wrong. The amygdala turns certain experiences and situations into triggers for anxiety and often doesn’t have much logic to it. What causes anxiety and panic one in person, may not affect another person at all. 

What that means is that everybody has a different stress response and different triggers. Because this happens quickly and subconsciously, just “muscling through it” is rarely successful. What actually needs to happen is a rewiring of the brain circuitry.

Some interventions can be done at home and work for the short-term, such as regular aerobic exercise, yoga, sleep, and meditation. Other interventions require working with someone like me to frame and re-teach the amygdala new pathways and change reactions to anxiety and stress.

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