Overcoming the Amygdala Part 23

Last time, we looked at a whole range of distorted thinking which gets us mired in anxiety and can lead to a worsening mental scene. The range included telling yourself that the very worst is happening or is going to happen so that it ‘won’t really happen’; drastically underestimating your ability to cope with situations; ignoring things which deny your beliefs; misinterpreting bodily sensations as being exaggerated, life-threatening or dangerous; affirming the existence of improbable things; believing something simply because it matches up with how you feel, and a whole lot more. Many of these can be summed up as ‘magical thinking’, an attempt to control the uncontrollable using thought. These patterns of thought and belief don’t come from the amygdala directly but they are crucial to our understanding of why we get stuck in anxiety. That’s because they tend to be aligned with the amygdala.

The Sequence

Here’s the sequence of what happens:

1. The amygdala continually scans your environment looking for trouble. It defines ‘trouble’ as anything that doesn’t seem to match the template of ‘ideal scenario’ that it’s projecting.

2. When it finds something odd, missing, out of sequence, or anything that appears to be a departure from the ideal, it makes a quick calculation — it compares your existing condition with the apparent threat. If You look good, strong and ready as an organism in comparison with whatever the threat is, it does nothing; if it finds you looking small, weak, or in some way unprepared, it triggers an array of alarms based on past experiences of a similar order — physical triggers, like raised heart rate, sweaty hands and so on, and mental reactions, like nervousness, revulsion and so forth. These are designed to ‘jump start’ you into action so you can fight whatever the threat is, or run away effectively.

3. What happens next is key, and is something we haven’t looked at in detail yet: your conscious rational mind, so far bypassed by the amygdala’s primitively wired system, either steps in with some associated wisdom and comes up with a plan, or it backs down and gives in to the alarms.