Overcoming the Amygdala Part 2

We’ve seen that there is a function in the mind/brain, possibly associated with the amygdala in the brain, which acts as a constant ‘scanner’ of our thoughts, bodies and environments, perpetually comparing ideal situations with existing ones, day in, day out. It’s a primitive mechanism, designed to detect anything it considers to be a departure from perfection. If it finds something it considers a threat to the organism, it triggers the fear response with which we are all familiar: raised heart-rate, increased respiration, panicky emotion — and it triggers without reference to conscious thinking, because rational thought requires time, and emergencies don’t have time.

Those organic responses are supposed to prepare us, on a basic physical level, for either a fight or flight, and in times past, when physical dangers were far more prevalent in our environments, the whole thing worked well enough: from the smell of smoke to mysterious movements in the nearby bushes, to the sounds of approaching predators, the amygdala did its job at the organic level it was designed for: it prompted readiness for action.

Its continuous scanning also helped human beings to find foods that they could eat, suitable places to shelter and so on.

The problem arises when the amygdala finds departures which only resemble or seem like actual departures, but which are actually harmless. It senses unknowns surrounding a forthcoming school exam, for example, and triggers anxiety; it picks up a slight lack of material goods in the shops and activates panic buying; it interprets a look on someone’s face as threatening and causes a fear response. Bypassing the conscious mind as it does, we get the chemical wave of emotion and physical change without apparently being able to do anything about it.

This can cause a range of effects in individuals.

1. It can totally overwhelm us by sending wave after wave of fear responses until we are overcome by apathy, and awake each day convinced that it will take an impossible effort to defeat the threats in the environment, even when we can’t exactly specify what they are. This is depression.

2. It can overwhelm us almost completely, so that even when we manage to function, we spend most of our time deeply worried and fretting over hard-to-identify factors in the environment which for some reason our brains are telling us we need to feel fraught about. This is anxiety.

3. We can swing in and out of anxiety or depressive states as the signals from the amygdala strike us and then vanish, returning at random, as far as we can tell.

4. As things improve slightly, unless we address some root causes, we can still feel the sudden and unexplainable effects of an anxiety attack after long periods of feeling fine.

However, once we isolate what is happening and apply various remedies — about which more in a moment — we can actually put some distance between ourselves and the amygdala’s automatic responses. We can start to seriously rise up a scale towards mastery of ourselves.