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How Your Amygdala Hijacks Your Life

Whether you know it or not, many of your decisions and actions are the result of a tiny part of your brain called the amygdala.

Your amygdala are very small almond-shaped masses (there are actually two of them) of nuclei located deep within the temporal lobe of your brain. Your amygdala is an ancient limbic system structure primarily responsible for processing memory, decision-making, motivation, and emotional reactions – most significantly, those related to survival. You have your amygdala to blame and thank for primal emotions, such as fear, anger, and pleasure.

Your amygdala acts as your brain’s threat radar and alarm. It was a very useful thing to have when our ancestors hunted for food – or were hunted for food. When the amygdala sounds the alarm, your body responds with an almost instantaneous sequence of hormonal and physiological changes preparing you to fight or flee.

When this happens, your amygdala hijacks your brain, and most of your physical and mental resources get allocated to making sure you survive. Your thinking, rational brain shuts down. Even though you no longer run into hungry tigers on a regular basis, your amygdala activates today when you run into an angry partner, unhappy boss, or rude driver.

How Your Amygdala Influences Your Memory

Research shows that the amygdala plays a crucial role in the formation and storage of emotional memories, resulting in what is known as “emotional learning.” While both positive and negative emotional memory storage may be facilitated by the amygdala, studies confirm that it pays special attention to threats, which results in “fear conditioning.

Fear conditioning is the classic Pavlovian response. In How Your Neurons Make You A Nervous Wreck (and how to rewire them) I explain:

Your brain learns, through a process called conditioning, to continually adapt your behavior in an attempt to be better suited to survive in its environment. In classical conditioning, your brain learns to associate two stimuli, such as in Pavlov’s well-known experiments with dogs. Pavlov, who was actually studying digestion, paired the sound of a bell with the dogs being presented food, which caused them to salivate. Pretty soon, he noticed that just the sound of the bell had the dogs drooling. The dogs brains had been conditioned to physically connect the sound of a bell with food in a neural pathway.

Now, Pavlov’s dogs scenario learning makes sense, but your brain doesn’t care if the pairing is logical or not, as demonstrated in the controversial “Little Albert” experiments. Scientist John B. Watson conditioned a young child, dubbed Little Albert, to fear a white rat by pairing the rat with a loud, scary noise over and over. Watson then demonstrated that Albert’s fear transferred to other white furry objects, such as a dog, a bunny, and a fur coat. In this case, poor Little Albert’s brain had wired white and furry with fear.

Studies reveal that emotional arousal during an event influences the strength of the memory for that event. The greater the emotional meaning you give something, the better your retention of that event turns out to be. Unfortunately, we usually have the most emotional responses to negative or fearful happenings.

How Emotional Learning Influences Your Choices

OK. So, what does all this mean for you? It means that your amygdala subconsciously influences your behavior and decisions today based on past emotional learning of which you may not even be aware. If emotional memories trigger your amygdala and your logical brain goes offline, your choices at that point become fear based and reactionary – not goal oriented and logical.

When your amygdala is running the show, you end up going through life trying to avoid what it remembers as “bad” instead of making conscious choices to live the life you want and taking steps towards happiness and fulfillment. In Are You Living According To What You Want Or According to What You Don’t Want?, I write:

This a fear-based existence where life becomes a marathon obstacle course of trying to avoid instead of trying to achieve.  Trying to avoid pain.  Trying to avoid loneliness.  Trying to avoid failure.  A person can focus on and exert so much energy avoiding what they don’t want that what they do want becomes secondary with pitiful little progress made in that direction.

How To Calm Your Amygdala and Take Your Life Back

To ensure your survival, the brain is actually programmed to thwart any conscious effort to override the amygdala’s fear response. So, changing our relationship to fear isn’t easy, but it can be done by becoming more mindful, practicing meditation, learning to respond rather than react, getting comfortable with uncertainty, and even welcoming and leaning into fear.

In the book, Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, Taylor Clark suggests the following proven methods to relate better to your fears and calm your amygdala:

Breathe – Consciously take slow, deep breaths into your abdomen to inform the parasympathetic nervous system that things are OK.

Put your feelings into words – Labeling an emotion, by talking or writing, helps the brain process and diffuse it.

Train, practice, and prepare – Through repetition and experience, you can program yourself to perform and make better decisions under stress as the procedure becomes routine and automatic in the brain.

Redirect your focus – Instead of turning your attention inward, growing preoccupied with worries, concentrate on the present moment and on the task at hand.

Mindfully disentangle from worries and thoughts – Learn to observe your thoughts and worries, distance yourself from them, and let them pass without getting hooked into them.

Expose yourself to your fears – To hit the mute button on fear, you have to allow yourself to feel afraid and expose yourself to it.  Clark writes:  “…[M]oving through a fear is the only way out of it.”

Learn to accept uncertainty and lack of control – By actually facing your fears of the future, accepting reality, and basking in your uncertainty, for instance, by repeating and exploring a distressing worry, without resisting the anxious emotional reaction, you and your amygdala habituates to the idea, and calm down. With exposure and acceptance, a fear loses its power.

Reframe the situation – When anxious biases appear about a situation, we can learn to consciously change our perspective by looking for the good, speculating possible positive outcomes, and not buying into the negative thoughts.

Joke around – Research shows that humor helps a person break out of a negative point of view and see things differently.

Build faith in yourself – Through celebrating small successes when exposing yourself to fear, changing to positive self-talk, and visualizing optimistic outcomes, you can expand your comfort zone and confidence. Research into worry shows that people handle worst-case scenarios far better than they expect.

Keep your eyes on a guiding principle – Dedication to a higher purpose, whether a spiritual belief, altruism, or personal goals, helps abate fear and keep us pointed in the right direction in the face of fear or hopelessness.

Open up to fear unconditionally  – Instead of battling, avoiding, trying to control, or feeling bad about fear, learn to approach fear as a friendly companion, expecting it to show up and welcoming it when it does.  If you stop thinking of it as a problem, it’s not a problem.

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  1. It’s always interesting Debbie to learn that the practices and tools I use in my life have a basis in science and physiology. I’ve just chosen tools that I resonate with and I can personally attest to the fact that each of the tools you mention above, absolutely work. 🙂

  2. Sandra Pawula Reply

    This is so interesting, Debbie: “The greater the emotional meaning you give something, the better your retention of that event turns out to be.” A good reminder not to feed our emotions about any particular incident. I think we need to proceed carefully when it comes to exposing ourselves to fear if we have a traumatic background. I’ve found support and calming the nervous system first provides a stronger foundation and helps to dismantle the fears.

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