ANXIETY & THE AMYGDALA


 
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90% of the experience of anxiety is physical.

When you exasperatedly claim "I FEEL so scared", you're not kidding. Sometimes, the feeling of anxiety is just about all there is to anxiety.

The physical symptoms can be downright unbearable. As an HSP, you are even more likely to “feel the symptoms” because of greater sensory sensitivity.

What is causing your body to experience such debilitating symptoms? Your thoughts? Sure. But if you know your thoughts are exaggeratedly irrational, then why are you still feeling afraid?

The answer lies in the Amygdala.

The amygdala is a tiny, almond shaped structure deep inside the emotional part of your brain (the limbic system).

To understand why the amygdala does what it does, we need a little basic information about why the emotional brain does what it does. 

 

WHY AM I SO EMOTIONAL?

 
 
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The emotional brain is the oldest, most primitive part of our brain, which was only ever designed to ensure physical survival. Why? Because in early times, it was only about physical survival. You were a good ol' fashioned caveman in a jungle and your only call to action was to watch out for snakes, bears, foxes and other cavemen fighting for your meat and fruit. You needed a kind of brain that is quick, hyper-vigilant and out of consciousness, because consciousness would have been capable of wiping you off the face of the earth. 

"Ohhhh....I see...this is indeed a snake..hmmm...let me think...what should I do? It appears that I need a sophisticated plan to handle this...Oh, and by the way, I'm speaking from my grave."

You needed a visceral and autonomous brain for physical survival. And nature gave it to you. This is your emotional brain. 

Can you see why our innate, basic emotions like fear are so automatic? 

Over the course of evolution, the emotional brain wasn't really replaced. Thank goodness! Even today, I really need it to be quick and automatic if I run into that snake again. Or an axe murderer. Or a falling tree branch. Or my mother-in-law.

Our emotional brain wasn't replaced, but nature somehow figured that in this new, modern world, your needs are different. You no longer need to fight so much for physical survival, but more for social and psychological survival.

"My home keeps the snakes away, but god save me from my son of a bitch coworker trying to screw me over at work!!"

NOW you need a slower, more deliberate, purposeful and rational brain. One that can override your emotional brain's instant impulse to punch the 2-year old screaming bloody murder on your train commute to work. You need an adult brain that tells you to move over to a different compartment.

So nature recently gave you another layer of a brain called the neocortex. Other terms commonly used for it are the "rational" brain or the "higher" brain. This is supposed to be the "wise" brain. 

Being wise and strategic about modern world issues requires you to usually pause, reflect, weigh pros and cons and proceed. These are deliberate actions. They're not automatic and visceral like our emotional impulses. They become second nature to us with time and practice, but at some initial point, the practice of accessing rationality by slowing down, pausing, reflecting and choosing appropriate action is new. 

Slowing down and reflecting instead of acting on emotional impulses requires time and effort. Unlike automatic emotional reactions which are more or less handed over to you.

For example, the impulse to yell at that screaming child is automatic. But reflecting on that impulse and deciding not to is more deliberate. It takes longer. You deliberately access your reserves of wisdom, spend a few seconds there and make the wisest decision. 

Thus the mechanics of its job, combined with its relatively new age in human evolution, make your rationality take much longer to kick in than your emotions. 

Now geared with this understanding, let's come back to the amygdala.

 

THE AMYGDALA: HOW IT WORKS

The amygdala is not just in the emotional brain. It is deeeeeeep inside it. Meaning? It is operating unconsciously. You cannot control its immediate, instinctive, automatic reactions because they happen much before your consciousness kicks in. 

What is it reacting to? At a high level, we can say that the amygdala reacts to new or threatening objects in the environment. When its triggered, it sends immediate rapid fire signals (how?) to your brain and body. To do what? To make your body ready to fight or flight the situation.

Heart beats faster. Muscles tense. Blood pressure rises. Adrenalin is pumped into your bloodstream. More sweating. Lungs take in more O2. And many, many more reactions.

This is excellent news. Without your body prepared like this, you are simply not equipped to protect yourself in the face of genuine danger. How can you run away from a snake if your body doesn't "feel" like you'll be dead if you don't?

Another excellent news is that amygdala triggering is so incredibly quick, automatic and visceral, that "consciously", you have to do nothing to prepare your body to fight or flight. The bodily reactions from a triggered amygdala just "show up in your life". One second you're a beach bum on a hammock sipping his Pina Colada and the next second you're sprinting for your life when a lizard falls on you.

Be thankful that your amygdala exists. It can save your life when the dangers are real. 

 

WHEN THE THREATS AREN'T REAL

Ok, so the amygdala produces fear-like symptoms, but why do non-fearful things trigger it? I can understand that if I see a snake, fear is expected. But what about things I know AREN’T supposed to be fearful? Why does that amygdala react to them? Like my own thoughts.

This is the anxiety sufferer's question. 

Amygdala Facts in the following table should be every anxiety sufferer's bible.

 

AMYGDALA FACTS: 8 THINGS TO KNOW

(source: 2)
  • FACT 1: What triggers the amygdala?
    1. Sensory Input. “I see a snake” “I hear a creepy sound”. “I feel a tingling on my skin”

    2. Novelty. When you experience something out of your zone of predictability, familiarity or comfort.
      • A quick startle response. Experienced that? "Something just moved around the corner of my eye". "Walking into what I expect to be an empty room but see someone in it."
      • In social situations. “These people weren’t supposed to be here” “First day of college in a new town” “New job, new coworkers, new boss”

    3. Input more associated with contexts than senses, e.g. having a thought or having conflicts

    4. Memory

    5. Input coming in from the higher brain, called prefrontal cortex.
      • "It's a rope, not a snake" vs. "It's a rope, what if it becomes snake?"
      • "It's a thought, you can't control it." vs. "It's a thought, you better control it"
  • FACT 2: Amygdala triggering happens very quickly. In less than a fraction of a second. This is because its part of the emotional brain. That means you 'feel' fear before you can understand what you fear and why you are fearing it. You cannot control this.

  • FACT 3: The amygdala switches off its alarm when it believes that there is safety. Once the amygdala alarm is switched off, symptoms reverse themselves to normal. Your heart rate's normal. Your breathing's normal. Your focus, concentration and coordination is back.

  • FACT 4: Some people have a more sensitive amygdala. Roughly 20% of the population

  • FACT 5: Those with a sensitive amygdala are more likely to be triggered.

  • FACT 6: Did you show up with a sensitive amygdala from the birth? Maybe. But the next point is the one to remember.

  • FACT 7: Not everyone with a sensitive amygdala develops anxiety. In Jerome Kagan's longitudinal study, 55% of those born with a sensitive amygdala ("high-reactives") did not show signs of anxiety.

  • FACT 8: The amygdala can be trained. The way to do that is to work with FACT 1's #5. Train and use your prefrontal cortex to support recovery, not anxiety.


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THE REAL REASON FOR ANXIETY

When  you show up to the table with anxiety, you are suffering with fear and fear symptoms from stimulus that aren't real threats. Even you know that.

What are these triggers?

These are thoughts you don't like (#3) and memories you don't like (#4).

"Why did I think this thought?" "Why do I remember this?"

Because thoughts and memories trigger your amygdala, you are also stuck with bodily sensations you don't like. Anxiety symptoms.

What have you concluded from your history with anxiety? "My thoughts and memories make me anxious."

But the real reason you have an anxiety disorder is because #5 is your real problem. 

Your prefrontal cortex (rational brain) is not able to switch off the false alarms raised by an amygdala that has been triggered by these thoughts and memories.

THIS IS WHERE ANXIETY IS DEVELOPED.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the higher brain that is supposed to be the rational one. It assesses the situation rationally, interprets it rationally and follows it up with aligned action. It's not just about "thinking" wisely but also correspondingly "behaving" wisely.  

Snake? Danger. Run
Rope? Harmless. Stop running. 
Crazy thought? Terrible. Whatever. Can't control it. 
Memory? Painful. Don't fear it. 
Perfectionism? Impossible. Trying my best.
Shamed for being imperfect? Not my problem. 
Failure? Painful. Learned good lessons. Starting over.

The question marks are the potential triggers. For anyone. Not just someone with anxiety, or predisposed to anxiety. The question marks are the conflicts.

BUT everyone has a rational brain that has the power to resolve conflicts in way that are healthy, thereby overriding the amygdala's emergency alarm. Once overridden, fear dissipates and the body returns to balance. 

In other words, the higher brain has the power to not lead you to an anxiety disorder.

 

YOUR ANXIETY. YOUR AMYGDALA.

At every stage of life and mental health, every person has the means to resolve his inner psychological life by himself. What is the only thing he can rely on? His own mind. 

How does his mind guide him to navigate his internal life? When we ask this question, what we are really asking is "How mature and wise are you?"

When anxiety is our reality, it usually means that our own wise mind is not working very well to solve our problems. Its because our rationality itself is distorted. In psychological language, we call these Cognitive Distortions

What are these? Common distortions for the anxious person include thought suppression, magical thinking, mind-reading, perfectionism, black-and-white thinking, should-thinking, foreclosure and emotional reasoning.

And because these are distortions instead of healthy thinking, they fail to solve our fears while we are confronting them internally in our heads. And because (usually) behavior follows thinking, the actions we end up taking externally are also distorted.

If you are fully merged with the thought that predicts your death unless you do "this", how can you not do "this"? That would be insane, right?

Witnessing our own powerlessness over these triggers makes us fear them more. The cycle continues.

 
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Take Sam's example:

"You are going to die if you don't wash your hands 17 times every 17 minutes."

This kind of thought triggers the amygdala because it's new, it's sudden, it's automatic and it's talking about "death" for pete's sake.

But the amygdala's alarm to treat it as a real danger is a false alarm. Sam needs his rationality to tell him that.

But if his own rationality is telling Sam that he can only be safe if this thought either goes away (Pure-OCD) or he listens to it (OCD), how screwed is he? What his rationality was supposed to say is "Leave the thought alone. Some thoughts are random. Don't fight the wrong battles."

Instead, not only is his rational mind giving the wrong message to suppress thoughts, but it's also paving the way for a deeper and darker bottomless hole.

Sam (and every single person in his place) saw that the more he tried to rid the thought, the more it forced its way back. Instant failure. But unlike the other person who will willingly admit and accept human powerlessness over the randomness of some thoughts, Sam takes this as a matter of life and death.

He concludes "This thought must really mean something if it's attacking me like this and I have no power over it. I have to listen to it". So there you go. Behavior follows. He washes his hands 17 times, every 17 minutes. For?

He did this for the whole day, then the whole week, then the year, then the next 10 years. He stopped going to college, lost his friends, worried his family sick, is in-n-out of psychiatrists' offices and mental hospitals, is on disability, feels insane, is hopelessly depressed that he couldn't achieve his dreams because of his illness.

Think about Sam's amygdala by now. It is through the roof. It never got safety. It kept getting the message of every increasing threats, dangers, troubles and failures. Sam is still plagued by "irrational" thoughts. Now they have multiplied to new ones. But not just thoughts. Sam's memories of himself, his anxiety and his life are all fearful and negative. All of his reality and emotional histories around dealing with thoughts and memories keep him chained to anxiety. His amygdala never got a message of safety.


What was described above was a dramatic example of OCD. Now replace it with less dramatic cases, but where you're still dealing with distressing thoughts.

What does your rationality tell you about how to deal with issues that rock your boat?


(GAD, Depression) How do you deal with thoughts about your past failures and regrets? With compassion, flexibility and hope, or nihilistic surrender?

(Trauma and PTSD) How do you deal with painful memories of the past? Recycle them into empowerement or haunted by them?

(Panic Disorder) How do you deal with the fear of having a panic attack? Face the fear anyway or chose to experientially avoid life?

(Social Anxiety) How do you deal with the fear of meeting new people and facing the possibility of not being approved? Take the risk or isolate yourself from the world?


What you rationally think and choose is how your amygdala is getting trained.

In anxiety, we end up selecting distortions - both cognitively and behaviorally - which train our amygdala to raise louder alarms. The louder alarms need more help. More distortions. And the spiral is downward.

Follow these distorted patterns for too long in your life? From too early in life? In too many areas of life? The stress response is perpetually active in your body. Soon enough these are what you accept as a labels for yourself:

Worrier. Neurotic. Hyper. Type A. Crazy.

This becomes your conditioning.

HAVE YOU BEEN SILLY TO PICK UP THESE DISTORTED THINKING STYLES?

No, you are not silly. You just didn't know that you do them. They are out of conscious awareness. It wasn't like you went to school one day, learned about these and then decided "Hey, I'd like to cause me a little suffering from now on. Let's do these!"

Just like the amygdala is unconscious, cognitive distortions too are picked up unconsciously. Usually in childhood. Strange no? Isn't the rational mind supposed to be smart enough to be..well..rational?

Sorry, but rationality too is developed. It doesn't just show up in your life all of a sudden. It is developed in your formative years based on what you see, and how you're getting trained to see the world, including yourself.

Again, you're not aware of your unconscious learning. It's just something that happens. Your rational mind iS unconsciously being developed by a whole lot of what is going on around you.

Maybe you're still unsure or unaware that you respond to life distortedly. Maybe you don't see them as distorted. "Perfectionism is distorted? Get outta here!" Maybe you don't know alternatives.

All in all, for one reason or another, you keep them. And these guys are the whole deal. The make or break deal. The ones which get to decide whether you move on or go down.

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AMYGDALA RE-TRAINING

The good news is that once cognitive distortions are recognized and their destructive potentials brought to the surface, one becomes deeply motivated to learning new ways of thinking and being. 

Because it is only here, in the area of thinking and behavior, that we have any degree of conscious control. That can influence our amygdala.

The amygdala can only be trained with behavior and memory. 

It cannot be trained by language. I can't borrow from my high school principal and just command my amygdala to "listen to me when I'm talking to you!". The amygdala cares jack. All it wants is "Prove that you're not scared by behaving without fear and I'll buy it. Until then, my alarm bells are ringing".

Of course, behavior is guided by thinking. What thoughts and philosophies will guide you to behave correctly to cure your anxiety? 

Here, the rule of thumb is: Drop the distortions but don't force them to disappear from your head. Knowing that your conditioned thinking has been distorted is correct, but forcing your brain not to produce old thoughts will be making the same mistake as before. You cannot manipulate thoughts (no one can), but you can develop new thinking alongside the distortions.

If you expect that your anxiety recovery can only start when the thoughts "Check the stove again" or "People don't like me" or "I have wasted my life thinking distortedly" never appear in your head, then you will fail again. Your amygdala will never see your success against your fears.

But when the amygdala sees that despite the thoughts, you are safe, it will have no evidence of a threat.

Remember the amygdala is not out to get you.

Quite the contrary. It's trying to protect you. YOU have shown the amygdala in the past that your triggers have taken you down. If that is your only honest, factual, in-the-face, can't-deny-or-defend absolute truth, then that's all your amygdala knows and cares about.

You cannot "tell" it that things are different unless you create a memory that things are different.

This means that unless you behave un-anxiously for that first time and create that god-forsaken positive memory for your amygdala, you cannot go far.

Now this sounds like a real catch-22 doesn't it? You need to behave properly to calm your amygdala, but you really need a got-damn calm amygdala to behave properly in the first place. Right?

Wrong.

You don't need a calm amygdala to make your behavior happen. You may prefer one, but you don't as hell need one. Screw it. Not at this stage of your life (and anxiety). You have to make peace with your amygdala being what it is by now- "A highly sensitive brain part that triggers needlessly." 

Despite the suckiness of the symptoms in the beginning, remember it's just in the beginning. The amygdala is one heck of a trainable, mold-able piece of work. You show it a little bit of what it wants to see, and it dutifully backs off.

Ask Charles Linden.

Charles is now a global leader in Panic Recovery. Charles was all kinds of intense anxious from age 5 until 30. Read his story. He tried everything: all kinds of medications and assorted therapies. He found little to no relief from anything. His treatment almost led him to financial bankruptcy. His anxiety became excruciatingly more terrifying with each passing day. At one point, he was experiencing hallucinations while awake. Can you imagine what his amygdala would have looked like in a brain scan?

Charles eventually cured his lifelong anxiety over a period of one week. How did he do this? He heard about the amygdala and what it really wants. He decided that if that's what it wants, that's what he'll give it. He started behaving without anxiety. That's all. He put into action different strategies, all of which involved behaving as if there is no threat. 

Charles has been fully cured for almost 2 decades, has a wife and kids, is extremely successful and is a global guru in anxiety recovery. He couldn't have done that if his amygdala was still raising false alarms. His amygdala isn't. Because it got re-trained withe Charles behavior.

Yes, the symptoms will be a real bitch when you first start out, but so what? Not once have anxiety symptoms killed anyone.  Hold on to that truth and weather the symptoms. Let the amygdala do what it wants, and still do the right thing, anyway.

What is the right thing to do?

This you will have to figure out as it depends on the kind of issues that rock your boat.

Sometimes it's clear what to do. As in panic disorder, agoraphobia, and OCD. It is allowing the negative thoughts to continue, and despite them consciously deciding to face you fears. If your amygdala symptoms make you feel the dread, let it. Let it ride its own storm while you continue to watch your TV show. Unfazed. 

Other times, it really, really depends. I'm not a fan of articles which lists steps like "get proper sleep", "exercise", "don't worry", "think less". What if you can't do any of this because of the circumstances in your life? Then you need a more creative plan. Find it.

That's why it all depends. Because it's circumstantial. 

Is it quitting your job or not?

Getting married or not?

Going to the party because society tells you to? Or is it going because you'll enjoy it? Or is it not going because you fear a panic attack? Or is it not going because you prefer watching TV and you're okay with that? 

Which one?

In the end, you have to decide because they're your own triggers. Not mine. You have to figure out what to do so you suffer less.

These aren't always black or white answers.  Who says any "one" person has the right answer nailed down which applies for all of us? Screw that. Only you can finally decide this.

If you need to start building the self-confidence to trust your decisions, that's a different matter. There you can get help. But the final behaviors will always be yours to make. If that freaks you out, figure out why.

With the right kind of tools and support, you can solve the mystery of your anxiety and head off in the direction of your own values and goals. Decided by you. 

THIS IS AMYGDALA RE-TRAINING. 

And it's possible even for Sam. At this stage of his life. With all his prior life spent in anxiety.

Start getting educated and informed on what are the healthiest ways of thinking and behaving for you. Not for anyone else. But for you. At this stage. When you come with all of your unique anxious baggage. The pain and suffering that you've gone through, and the misguided messes you created for yourself because you didn't know any better. 

 

ARTICLE SUMMARY:

"GAARP"

GENERALLY ACCEPTED ANXIETY RECOVERY PRINCIPLES


  1. Your amygdala is sensitive. You may have genetically acquired a sensitive amygdala, or it has become sensitive over time with your anxiety episodes or both.
  2. A sensitive amygdala does not automatically equate to anxiety. Remember, 55% of children born high-reactive did not develop anxiety. "Each adult profile was influenced by the child's temperament, but neither was influenced by it", says Kagan. So what else can influence your reality? Environment, conditioning and if neither has been supportive, then in the end, your own choices and free will.
  3. The amygdala can be trained. If Charles Linden (and thousands of others) can do it after living with the worst forms of anxiety for decades of their life, you can too.
  4. The way to re-train the amygdala is by producing positive memories of yourself dealing with your triggers.
  5. These positive memories cannot be built without action. You need to start somewhere. Where is that? It's with behavior. You need to behave in a way that "shows" the amygdala that this conditioned stimulus is not a threat to you.
  6. Behavior is guided by thinking. If your old thinking was faulty, don't use it. Use new thinking. But don't force old thoughts to go away, including the thought that tells you how crazy you've been. Watch those thoughts from a distance instead of merging with them.
  7. Limit your "creative" google research and "doctor hunting" to find something that's more wrong with you than just a triggered amygdala. That would be a distorted behavior. Want to cure anxiety? Question why reading this article is not enough for you. Question how all possible good news is never enough. Question why you are so vested in finding bad news. Question why you can't sit with good news.
  8. The brain can and does change. The amygdala can and does do both - sensitize as well as desensitize. Neuroscience is showing that we can change our brain's wiring at any age. Consider two opposite real-life cases:
    • Charles had anxiety everyday for 26 years. He cured it in a week and has stayed cured since then. How can that be possible without a rewired brain and a de-sensitized amygdala?
    • Leonardo di Caprio voluntarily walked into OCD for his job. Yes, that's right. After his role in 'The Aviator', Leonardo developed OCD for about a year. To put this context, it means that he sensitized his own amygdala. That's how plastic the human brain is. Then, after getting treated with mindfulness, he again re-wired his brain to cure his OCD. He then de-sensitized his amygdala. His experience was like a switch to alter his brain - on-off, on-off. Self-directed neuroplasticity.
    • Conclusion? NEVER tell youself that anxiety is lifelong

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