Overcoming the amygdala depends upon shifting from one way of thinking to another. This takes time and effort — there is no magic bullet or overnight solution or ‘switch’ which can accomplish this instantaneously.
But it can be done.
It happens like this: a consciously changed behaviour on your part creates a positive memory of yourself and of your own coping skills in a situation which normally would trigger amygdala alarms. The amygdala does not understand language, it only understands memory. You cannot simply instruct your amygdala: it has to remember that the situation, person, object or whatever it is is safe. If the amygdala only remembers you panicking in a given situation, it will always interpret that situation as a threat. That's why you have to change your memory. If your amygdala only has access to anxious memories, it will keep on regarding the situation as alarm-worthy.
Once you have created a new, un-anxious memory, that becomes hardwired into you. Next time you’re in that same situation, your amygdala will remember the lack of freaking out on your part. It will become desensitised.
Changing the way you behave means that you don’t need to change, alter or manipulate your ‘thoughts’.
A Moment of Change
You probably have made the assumption that you always need to first deal with the subject matter being presented by your mind/brain before you can feel safe. But one incident of changed behaviour means that you bypass all the thinking and re-programme the amygdala directly.
I remember the exact moment when I overcame my fear and anxiety relating to parties. I used to feel that I ‘had to’ attend them and that there was something wrong with me for not liking them — dislike of parties was, I considered, a pathological defect in myself which was preventing me from socialising and enjoying life. I would force myself to go to them, but end up sitting in a corner watching people ‘have a good time’ getting more and more drunk and behaving in various ludicrous ways which they considered normal and acceptable. As the other party-goers descended into alcoholic or other drug-related incoherence, becoming more and more unpleasant and less and less conscious as time went on, my usual conclusion was that there was something lacking in my personality as to why I wasn’t able to enjoy doing similar things. But on this one occasion, I watched as some friends attacked another friend verbally, accusing him of being aloof and sarcastic and so on. It happened that the person under attack was a close friend of mine — and I noted that none of what he was being accused of matched my own experience of him. So, having listened to the tirade against him for a while, I quietly got up, told everyone that what was being said was untrue and unworthy of them, and told them that I was leaving.
The group turned to me and begged me to stay, but I headed for the door and left, with the friend who was being attacked.
After that point, I never again had a false notion about parties or my own viewpoint of them. I ceased attending most of them, and felt much, much better for it.
The point of the story as far as amygdalas are concerned is that my amygdala from that point had a vivid memory of totally different behaviour from me regarding that kind of social scene. Alarm ringing in my head associated with the party scene vanished and never returned.
Every time you manage to create a successful behavioural episode it builds on the previous ones. Over time, un-anxious behaviour from you starts becoming ‘normal’, and you effectively re-wire your mind/brain to respond without ringing alarms. You build up enough of a positive memory bank to outweigh a lifetime of anxious reactions. Your amygdala desensitises as it learns that despite the alarms it habitually used to raise, you’re now behaving as if there is no threat. It begins to react only to appropriate threats.
Your day-to-day biology improves dramatically — you become less hyper-vigilant and more calm. Your views of the world begin to change, becoming more nuanced, quieter and wiser, which further influences your behaviour. Your confidence in different situations increases and you have more faith in your ability to cope.
Here’s another extraordinary thing: because you’re putting out a more confident ‘vibe’, you begin attracting the right kind of people into your life. You start making choices in relationships, work and activities more aligned to your core values.
The struggle for some people is that this is all too much: they flounder in confusion and want a quicker, easier solution than the uncomfortable one of ‘facing their fears’. And often this is because they don’t have anything to measure their current anxiety-filled behaviour against. Perhaps their whole lives they have been surrounded by anxious people demonstrating anxious behaviour. The idea that there might be any kind of life outside the Panic and Anxiety Zones seems ludicrous, impossible to envisage. This can leave them wondering if they even know what is the right behaviour for them. How can they be sure? Isn't it all subjective? Who decides? Do dread and fear mean nothing, or are they actually useful? Isn’t terror of loss a measure of how much you love something or someone?
Much confusion — and further anxiety — results.
It’s important to establish, therefore, what is ‘right behaviour’ for an individual.
Right behaviour for each individual is that which is aligned with their values and goals.
What if they don’t have any values or goals?
The hole created by the absence of values and goals will rapidly fill with anxiety and fear.
Any values and goals are better than no values and goals, but carefully worked out and aligned values and goals are best.
So how does one go about working out a set of aligned values and goals?
i) Start with the best moments of your life, the ones where you felt strongest, more at ease, more yourself. List these out and note down what was going on at the time. In particular, look for what values were you exemplifying or demonstrating or forwarding at the time: were you sharing? Empowering? Loving? Obeying? Creating? Were you being smart? Thoughtful? Caring? Assertive? Nail this down as much as you can.
ii) Now take a look at some of the darkest experiences of your life. What was happening in them? What values were being suppressed? What goals were being thwarted?
iii) What does it take to create a sense of fulfilment in your life? Do you need to be creative? Be active? Be learning? What inspires and uplifts you?
If you do a pretty thorough job with the above questions, you should have a clearer idea of what your personal values are.
Now try to narrow them down. Which ones are essential to you? Which ones speak to you the most? Which values do you think support you and your future?
See if you can come up with about five key words which encompass your core values. This might take more than one attempt — put your worksheet aside and come back to it the next day if needed. Do these values still resonate with you?
‘OK,’ some might say, ‘I have a list. But it’s all pie in the sky, because my amygdala runs my life and these things sound good but they are a million miles from what I actually do.’ That may well be the case — your amygdala may have been in control for so long that anything you intellectually come up with on a piece of paper seems unattainable and unreal.
You have to act on these values to make them real.
Just like in my ‘party moment’ above, you have to find those incidents where you stand up for a particular value, in contrast to a ‘normal’ behaviour pattern. Do it just one time — and you will notice the difference.
You’ve started to wrest control from the unconscious mechanisms in your head and assert your own set of importances upon things.