By Bob Livingstone
There have been dramatic studies about the science of the brain, how it works and how we can deal with our emotional pain in new ways. There have been many articles and books written in the last few years about the different parts of the brain, how they function, and how they can heal emotional anguish.
This article will focus on the workings of the part of the brain called the amygdala. I am concentrating on this part of the brain because it has a huge impact on our emotional lives.
The amygdala is a necessary part of our brain that has kept us safe throughout history. It becomes activated when you are in real danger. It triggers the fight or flight response. If you see a wild dog running towards you, your amygdala will mobilize and you will take whatever action is necessary to protect yourself.
Without the amygdala, we would not be able to prepare for peril, so it is a necessary part of our being. However, sometimes the amygdala can become over active due to situations that create post-traumatic stress syndrome. (PTSD)
The amygdala plays a part in the creation and storage of memories associated with emotional events. The amygdala also plays a role in the formation of many fear responses including freezing, rapid heartbeat, increased respiration and stress hormone response.
If you are a victim of child abuse, if your parents had a hostile divorce, if someone close died when you were young, if you were a soldier in a war zone, or if you had physical health problems; you may be suffering from PTSD.
In the original trauma, the normal and natural fight flight response kicks in, the amygdala immediately decides it is a dangerous situation that must be reacted to in that way; and that is a normal body response to danger.
In the original trauma, the normal and natural fight flight response kicks in, the amygdala immediately decides it is a dangerous situation that must be reacted to in that way; and that is a normal body response to danger. The higher functions of the brain located in the frontal lobe allows us to sort our experience, compare and contrast, make meaning out of what is going on and finding a safe resolution. These higher functions vanish during the original trauma; making it impossible to create any kind of logical strategy for dealing with this emotional disturbance. They go offline because protecting a real threat to the body overrules any other brain task.
Sometimes the amygdala can misinterpret body sensations. Jane can be thinking about the possibility about being rejected by her boyfriend and her abandonment issues get triggered. The amygdala is sensing that her life is being threatened when in essence she is not in danger, but panicking because she has strong, negative feelings and memories of being abandoned by someone she truly loved. This panic is wrongly identified as the possibility of grave physical harm by the amygdala, so its forces rev up.
Around four years ago, I had a number of health issues happen one right after the other: I had the H. Pylori stomach virus that felt like rats were fighting for control over my stomach which led to acid reflux. I remember lying on the floor feeling without energy as the country celebrated the inauguration of the first African-American president. A couple of months later, the electrical system in my heart wore out which resulted in the installation of a heart pacemaker. Then I had surgery to remove a seven millimeter kidney stone that became infected. This followed with intermittent back and other muscle pain.
My amygdala kicks in when I experience any body sensation that reminds me of the electrical system of my heart giving out or kidney stones floating in painful areas. I could be feeling winded when I exercise or heartburn or any other sensation that seems out of the ordinary. I feel the sensation and then thoughts about my possible demise enter and panic sets in like an unwanted visitor.
I also can be triggered by any incoming body sensation that I feel may lead to my death-even though there are no conscious thoughts that I am going to die, but the amygdala is getting the message that I am in danger and it sounds the alarm that is experienced as intense fear in my body. I feel so overwhelmed when this occurs and don’t know what to do. The panic can last a few minutes or can be intermittent over the course of a day.
This feeling of impending death is experienced at the same time as the memory of suddenly and without any warning, passing out while I was on my five mile run.
I realize that this hyperactive amygdala had its origins when my father died suddenly when I was fifteen years old. My innocence was instantly shattered and I was abruptly pushed into a world of having no father and no means to deal with such a loss.
I have felt shame about this fear/amygdala sensation being activated for most of my life. I always believed the fear was my fault and experienced humiliation since I’ve had no success in warding it off.
Now I know that the amygdala becomes active whenever it senses danger. I have had no control over that process when it does give out its warnings. A huge part of my emotional healing is about learning to accept that the amygdala will do its thing no matter what. Sometimes I will not be able to respond to the trigger immediately and the sirens from that part of my brain will ring with danger and a call to be ever vigilant.
When I was younger, I perceived the amygdala to be the critical parent inside me and now I am aware that I have mislabeled this part. We all have different parts of us inside that may include the child, teenager, calming mother or raging father. The amygdala is not in this category at all. It is part of your brain that is designed to keep you safe by alerting you to danger.
Example of how this all works: First you notice a physical sensation like heartburn and as soon as you feel it, you tell yourself that this feeling is not dangerous, that it is only heartburn and not a heart attack or heart failure. You will have to practice this; it won’t be natural to you at first, but after repeating this process several times, it will begin to become second nature. You then tell yourself to take some deep breaths and feel yourself relax. If you are focusing on your breathing, it is difficult to concentrate on anything else like fear.
It is important to realize that hardly any time elapses between the moment you are triggered and the amygdala can be deactivated. The amygdala, at the moment you are triggered is like a pot of water that is only simmering now, but will be boiling over soon if you don’t interrupt its process. Therefore, you don’t have much time to intervene and the trick is to identify what is happening quickly and calm yourself so the amygdala doesn’t sense danger and therefore doesn’t sound its full alarm.
Let’s revisit the case of Jane from earlier. When she was a small child, her father, who she loved very much, one day decided to leave his family without any notice or conveyed reason. Now, whenever she thinks about being abandoned, which she does often, she has the memory of her father leaving and then gets triggered. Shortly after she is triggered, the amygdala kicks in because it senses danger and possible catastrophe. Her past memory falsely interpreted that she is in danger now/in the present.
Jane can then feel out of sorts and very anxious the rest of the day until the amygdala senses that the danger has passed.
She can learn to identify when she feels triggered. She learns that it commences with an anxious feeling followed by her childhood memory of dad leaving. This self-awareness is a cue that the trigger-amygdala activation is about to begin. At this moment she tells herself that she can take care of herself no matter what, that she can tolerate being alone and that she doesn’t need to give this trigger any more energy. She chooses to focus on something else such as work or guitar lessons.
The amygdala will not sense any danger and therefore will not get charged up.
If the amygdala has been activated and you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, hopeless, distressed, and/or confused; healthy distraction is a great technique to use.
If the amygdala has been activated and you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, hopeless, distressed, and/or confused; healthy distraction is a great technique to use. In the midst of these intense negative feelings, you can give yourself permission to distract yourself from the fear by concentrating on something else. You may choose to focus on a work related activity, exercise or a walk on the beach. This diversion from the fear will cause the amygdala to shut down its warning system because it will no longer feel that you are at risk for demise.
One form of healthy distraction for me is to get angry at this sense of overwhelm and by telling myself how sick I am of having to deal with bone aching anxiety. The amygdala may have felt that my anger signified that I was in control and therefore no danger was on the horizon.
It is very important to understand that mastering the process above is far from an easy endeavor. It takes lots of practice and patience. It takes many instances of trial and error. You may find that one or more of these techniques presented here is effective or you may discover something that works for you that no one else has discovered. Sometimes no matter how good you are at these techniques, the amygdala is going to get fired up and you will be overwhelmed. It is possible to reduce the frequency of these incidents though and you need to be a warrior to reach your goals. Go for it!
Psychotherapy Techniques that may help you: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness.
Other techniques that may help: Meditation, Breathing Exercises, Relaxation Skill Training, and other Stress Reduction Programs
Medication prescribed by a psychiatrist may be helpful as well as certain herbs and supplements recommended by alternative healers.
I do recommend that you do your own research for all these helpful possibilities.
– Special Thanks to Kathy Carlson MFT and Sharon Kman MFT for assisting with this article.
– Bob Livingstone is the author the critically acclaimed Unchain the Pain: How to be Your Own Therapist, Norlights Press 2011, The Body Mind Soul Solution: Healing Emotional Pain through Exercise, Pegasus Books, 2007 and Redemption of the Shattered: A Teenager’s Healing Journey through Sandtray Therapy, Booklocker 2002. He is a psychotherapist, licensed clinical social worker in private practice in The San Francisco Bay Area and has nearly twenty five years experience working with adults, adolescents and children.