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Overcoming the Amygdala Part 58

Last time, we looked at how our amygdala and its accompanying parasympathetic nervous system is a mechanism which projects outward onto our environment and reacts according to any risks, threats or perceived menaces in that environment, subconsciously triggering the mental and physical alarms with which we are familiar — but that this outward projection begins from an inner source. In other words, what the amygdala projects onto the outer world is determined by the inner self.

This may need some examples before it can be fully grasped.

Let’s say Sarah, a single mother, suffers from anxiety every day because she has little money but is responsible for the upbringing of two small children. Her ‘projections’ onto the world around her are going to be skewed a certain way — anything which looks like a threat to her children or her financial well-being or anything to do with her ability to look after those children is going to trigger anxiety alarms. The problem is that Sarah is hyper-anxious — even when she knows that things are under control, she still suffers from a rapid heart rate, cold sweats and sleepless nights.

On the other hand, Bert is a retired window cleaner who carefully saved a large fortune since his early twenties and is now financially affluent and not concerned about money at all. His amygdala is triggered by chest pains he has been experiencing since he stopped exercising and started spending all his time watching TV. Though he has had some medical overview, Bert continues to have panic attacks.

Freda, conversely, works as a shop assistant at a busy café in the middle of a large city. She has no children, a reasonable wage and some savings, and good health. Her anxieties stem from her concerns over the health of her elderly mother, now in a care home. Her panic affects her work, even when she knows that there is no immediate cause for alarm.

In each case, the mechanism is the same, but the details and specific triggers are very different. Human beings possess similar hardware, if you like, but as individuals their software is programmed uniquely.

It gets more interesting that that, though.

In each case above, we can probe deeper and begin to explore the frontiers of what makes each individual ‘tick’ on a psychological, even psychic, level. Why are their amygdalas overreacting as they are?

Sarah the single mother naturally suffers from anxiety over her desire to raise her children safely and well — but what’s going on in her unique inner world that places such an emphasis on the children? Of course, she has an inborn maternal urge to look after her offspring — she loves them, that’s a given. But sometimes she suffers anxiety attacks even when she knows she has money set aside for necessities and there is no immediate threat in the environment. Rational concern is one thing — but lingering, haunting worries which fly in the face of established facts are another. What is behind the amygdala’s persistent flagging up of apparently needless anxiety? Is there a deeper psychological reason or impulse beneath Sarah’s concerns when they are irrational?

Might it be that Sarah is projecting something about herself into her maternal role? Does she see, in her children, opportunities to fulfil something that she has failed to accomplish within herself? Some careful counselling might reveal that Sarah seeks to some extent to live through her children and considers her own life to be no more than a support system for a vague future hope projected through them.

We have to be careful here — this is not to question Sarah’s perfectly legitimate maternal urges to love and protect her children. What we’re examining here is the possible exaggeration of anxieties which often occurs in human beings — the persistent and reason-defying worries that press themselves upon us when all the facts state otherwise.

Spotting that she had given up on her own individuality and was seeking to live solely through her offspring psychologically freed Sarah’s attention — she became creative, felt refreshed and was more in tune with her surroundings. Worries fell away and became more fact-orientated: of course she would still experience anxiety when money was short or there was a real threat of some kind in the environment, but when things were handled and all was at peace, so was her own mind. She began a small crafting business and started to build a new career for herself as an artist while the children were at school. It didn’t make her a fortune (though it occasionally helped provide some luxuries for her family) but it was the beginning of a new, independent existence for her.

Bert the retired window cleaner similarly spotted that his irrational fears about his chest pains were misplaced and stemmed from inner psychological needs of which he was formerly unaware. The first step was getting himself checked out medically and finding that all was OK; this second step was starting a daily exercise programme — but that was before any examination of his inner landscape. He still endured anxiety attacks despite his improving health and the positive feedback from the doctor — so what was happening? It turned out that his exaggerated concerns over his health were based on a long-held but suppressed desire he had to write a book: any chest pain or twinge triggered an unexamined conclusion he was making that ‘the thing would never get written’ and that all his personal memories and ideas would be lost forever if he were to suddenly die. Starting on the book, one chapter at a time, relieved Bert of tremendous amounts of irrational worry — sure, genuine chest pains had to be investigated and checked out, but lingering exaggerated anxieties about his physical health faded away as he addressed their underlying cause.

Freda the shop assistant’s situation was a little more complex. She was haunted by worries that something would happen to her mother while she was at work — genuine worries, as her mother was frail and in her eighties. But by turning inward and exploring more deeply what was going on with Freda, it became apparent that there was something that Freda had never told her mother about, to do with a relationship she had had when a teenager. This secret was the unseen reason why Freda’s amygdala went berserk every day, moreso than might be considered a ‘normal’ amount. Freda was encouraged to speak to her mother, and once the hidden facts were divulged, Freda not only experienced a tremendous relief, but her relationship with her mother rose to a new level of love and intimacy and things were shared which had been unknown to both of them for decades. Consequently, when Freda’s mother passed away soon afterwards, Freda was able to grieve with compassion, love and an enduring sense that the relationship between them was a continuing, spiritual one — something that might not have happened had Freda not looked inward to find out what was prompting her exaggerated amygdalic activity.

What can we learn from these examples?

Yes, we have parasympathetic nervous systems which are triggered below our conscious awarenesses by a variety of factors — this has always been and will always be the case while we remain human. But when those systems are still pumping out alarms in the face of rationality, what can that tell us about ourselves and our hidden urges and needs?

Bringing unconscious and semi-conscious factors into the light can help us not only to tone down our amygdalas but also to elevate our quality of psychic life and the degree of compassion and understanding for ourselves and those around us.

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