All You Need Is Love (and a healthy amygdala)

Did you know that your brain contains 10 billion neurons which each form up to 10,000 connections with other surrounding neurons, leading to a potential of 100 trillion connections as you try to find your lost keys.  The majority of your neurons are as old as you are (this is the reason behind your gasp when you look in the mirror, since you feel the same inside as you did in 3rd grade).  But thankfully, our neuronal connections exhibit plasticity as they are constantly rewiring and adapting their connections.  Which means you CAN teach old humans new tricks!

Beneath our exquisitely complex cortical system, we have our primitive limbic system, also known as the “reptilian brain.”  This is responsible for our basic emotions and motivations in response to sensory stimulation.  Ironically, this part DOESN’T mature, compared to our executive cortical system!  (This explains why we might impulsively react like a 3 year old when our emotional “buttons” are pushed by political tirades on Facebook!).  Thankfully, as we compare our thinking mind with the automatic responses of our limbic system, we learn to purposely choose a more mature response.  

The staring player of the limbic system is the amygdala, the master switch of our fear response.  When incoming stimulation is perceived as familiar, the amygdala sends calm signals to the hippocampus, making learning and memorizing new information easier.  (Finishing your daily work as you sip on tea in a quiet room is more efficient).   But as soon as the amygdala is triggered by threatening situation, it raises your brain’s level of anxiety and focuses the attention to the immediate situation, in order to concentrate on self-preservation in the present moment.  (Children that live in challenging urban environments have a more difficult time concentrating and performing at school)

Extrapolate this into a chronically stressful situation (like a work environment that leaves you feeling invalidated, disempowered, or rushed), and your brain becomes damaged.   You’re more likely to overreact to stimuli, flooding your brain with neurochemicals of anxiety, due to lower set point of your amygdala.  Decisions are hasty, and you’ll have trouble concentrating, putting you at risk for mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, etc.  

It’s time to love on your amygdala!  You CAN learn to change your amygdala’s “set point”, just like a thermostat!  By practicing this exercise, you’ll train your amygdala to respond differently and improve your ability to use your powerful cortical “thinking” brain to override the “reptilian” limbic brain!

 

  1. Name your amygdala!  ___________________________

  2. Think of a few real-life memories that trigger an instant “fear” response in you.  It can be anything from spiders, to taking a test, to walking into a job interview).  Write them down and pick the worst.

  3. Set a timer for 5 minutes.

  4. Think about that Worst Fear situation.  Talk to your Amygdala by name.  Immerse yourself in that memory.  Imagine what you were wearing, how your body felt, what you saw and smelled.  Try to replicate the events as best you can in your mind’s eye.  

  5. Notice the sensations arising in your body.  Do your palms sweat?  Does your mouth feel dry?  Do you notice your forehead furrowing unconsciously?

  6. Rate the amygdala fear response on a scale of 1-10.

  7. Continue exploring the sensations, breathing deeply.  Your neurotransmitters are flooding your synapses.  With each breath, you’re clearing out the chemical response.

  8. Try to imagine this fearful situation and make it WORSE.  What could happen?

  9. Continue to breathe, stay with this fear.  Breathe it in and breathe it out.

  10. Once the timer is done, rate your fear again on a scale of 1-10.

 

With repeated practice, you’ll be able to use this “instant reset” during an actual fear event, and show your amygdala that you care!  Next time you’re acutely anxious, fearful, or stressed, mentally converse with your amygdala by name, and ask that it lower the set point a few notches.