It’s the season of peace and love, but fear and anxiety are everywhere.
Our weather patterns are becoming increasingly unpredictable and severe. Communities, even families, are divided by tribal beliefs. People die all over the world from war and famine. And COVID-19 still claims the lives of about 300 Americans every day.
So it is natural to feel fear and anxiety. But when fear and anxiety overwhelm our rational thinking, the amygdala is the culprit.
What is the amygdala (pronounced ah-mig-duh-la)?
You may remember this term from your biology class, but we don’t talk as much about it as the frontal lobe. The amygdala (ah-mig-duh-lee) — plural because there is one on each side of the brain — are small almond-shaped clusters in the midbrain that act as an early warning system. It is a component of the limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for our behavioral and emotional responses, especially those necessary for survival.
When we lived in caves, the amygdala protected us from hungry mammals. When you pounce on a sudden sound, your amygdala activates the “fight or flight” response.
When the amygdala kicks in, it makes the heart beat faster, moistens, and dilates the pupil to improve vision. The body secretes more glucose for immediate energy, airways expand to take in and use more oxygen, and blood vessels constrict to send blood to major muscle groups.
This is extremely useful when you are in a difficult situation, such as facing a medical emergency or fleeing an attacker. When these emotions hijack the thinking part of the brain, it doesn’t help much. The amygdala is at work when you panic when you get on a plane or speak in front of a crowd. It creates fear when it’s not really necessary.
The left and right amygdala work together, but seem to work slightly differently. The right amygdala is strongly associated with negative emotions such as fear and sadness, while the left amygdala is associated with both positive and negative emotional responses.
Overactivity of the amygdala can contribute to anxiety disorders, insomnia, symptoms of depression, and phobias. It can lead to emotional eating and increased drug and alcohol use, and coping strategies are not good for our overall well-being. I’m here.
It also appears to play a pivotal role in the processing of emotions and memories. When we have an emotional experience, the amygdala seems to “tag” the memory so that we can remember it more vividly. This can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It may also play a role in telling the brain, “This is important. Remember.”
If you’re facing 2023 with more fear and anxiety than hope, it might be worth learning a few techniques to tame those amygdala.
Here are three suggestions.
regular mindfulness meditation
Some studies have concluded that just practicing mindful meditation for eight consecutive weeks can improve your mental health. It has been shown to reduce anxiety, stress and depression.
Starting mindfulness meditation on your own is not easy. Because your brain keeps telling you you need to do something else. For reference, audio apps like YouTube and Spotify are full of guided meditations.
What’s the first thing someone says when you start panicking? “Take a deep breath.”
Research shows that abdominal breathing can calm an overstimulated amygdala. It slows your heart rate and draws your attention away from anxiety-causing thoughts to the feeling of being here now.
This is part of mindfulness meditation. Be aware of your thoughts and how they make you feel uneasy. Ask yourself if those thoughts are true at this point. Simply turning your attention from anxiety-producing thoughts to the present may calm your amygdala.
Only 8% of people keep their New Year’s resolutions. Instead of committing to lose 20 pounds by March, set a new year’s goal. Recognizing that at least part of your anxiety and fear may be due to overstimulation of your amygdala and that you can do something about it.
Happy New Year to all readers!
• Teri Dreher is a Board Certified Patient Advocate. A critical care nurse for over 30 years, she is the founder of NShore Patient Advocates (www.NorthShoreRN.com). She offers free phone consultations to readers of the Daily Herald. Call us at (847) 612-6684.