- Brian Sass
Anxiety and the Brain Part 2: Amygdala-based Anxiety
This is the 2nd part in the blog series regarding the brain and its role in anxiety. As we previously discussed, there are two main pathways in the brain that can cause anxiety; the cortical loop and the amygdala loop. This article will cover the amygdala pathway in more detail, and discuss its role in anxiety.
The amygdala is an ancient structure in evolutionary terms. The human amygdala is very similar to the amygdalas found in other animals, including dogs, rats, and fish. When you are born, there are pre-programmed responses in the amygdala that are ready to be put into action based on environmental and situational events. However, the principle of neuroplasticity applies to the amygdala; the amygdala is constantly learning and changing based on your day-to-day experiences. To understand amygdala-based anxiety, it is prudent to think of the amygdala as a “protector”; as you go about your day, the amygdala’s main focus is anything that might cause potential harm. While the goal of the amygdala is very important for human survival and basic functioning, the amygdala can over-react or become hypersensitive. This can lead to fear and anxiety responses to situations or experiences that are not really dangerous.
The amygdala forms memories based on your experiences; but not the type of memories that most people are familiar with. The amygdala creates emotional memories. These emotional memories can be positive or negative, but they are almost always an unconscious or subconscious event that you are not aware of. Positive emotional memories, like the smell of your favorite food that you eat with your family or loved ones, usually don’t cause anxiety or unregulated fear responses. Negative emotional memories can result in significant fear and anxiety, and can specifically lead to amygdala-based anxiety. Negative emotional memories are experienced directly (you simply begin feeling a specific emotion in a certain situation), rather than having the emotional memory stored as an image or movie in your mind (like a cortical memory). If you don’t fully understand how the amygdala functions, it is easy to assume that having anxiety from a negative emotional memory is simply an accurate reflection of the dangerousness of the situation – when most of the time the situation that is causing you anxiety is not inherently dangerous at all.
What does an amygdala-based negative emotional memory feel like? How do you know if you are experiencing this type of anxiety? The following statements will help you decide you have experienced this type of anxiety in the past, as they are all examples of amygdala-based anxiety responses (note that some people may have experienced many of these feelings in the past, or just one or two):
I notice my heart pounding strongly or my heart rate increasing significantly in certain situations – (as a somewhat consistent pattern, not “once” every few years)
I avoid certain experiences, situations, or locations without intending to do so – (you realize later that you have been avoiding certain things that you used to go to or enjoy, usually pointed out by another person)
I keep watching or checking on certain things even when I don’t really need to – (repetitive habit of constantly worrying or obsessively thinking about things that you never used to or are not significantly life-or-death information)
I can’t relax or let my “guard” down in a specific location or type of location/setting – (usually a feeling of constant increased stress or heightened sensitivity/worry around certain people or situations)
I can end up in a complete panic or have a panic attack very quickly – (usually people can be having a normal day in terms of symptoms and out-of-the-blue their symptoms can increase significantly, up to the point of a panic attack)
I feel overwhelmed easily and I can’t think clearly in certain situations – (usually a feeling of overstimulation, brain fog, or just extreme stress)
Under certain situations or circumstances, I feel paralyzed and can’t get myself to do anything – (usually people feel like they “freeze” and don’t respond how they think they should but are physically unable to act how they intend)
In stressful situations, I feel like I can’t breathe normally and/or I develop a lot of muscle tension in my body – (usually people feel like they hold their breathe in certain situations, or they will notice headaches or head pressure after certain events/situations because of an extended increase in muscle tension over a period of time (usually in the neck/cervical spine area))
All of the above statements reflect possible effects of negative emotional memories formed by the amygdala. When these memories are activated, it’s normal for people not to understand the reaction they are having, or for people to feel like they are not in control of their body or their responses. Sometimes people can even come up with reasons or excuses as to why they feel or act a certain way in those situations (for example, “I didn’t sleep enough last night, that’s why I was so stressed” or “I don’t like public speaking because I feel like I am going to make a mistake”). These reasons/excuses are largely cortically-based (your cortex is trying to explain why you feel these symptoms) and usually misguided. At the root of these negative emotional memories is a fear-based pattern of anxiety that at its heart is caused by unregulated or inappropriate activation of the amygdala pathways. If you are experiencing these feelings or if you think you may be experiencing amygdala-based anxiety from negative emotional memories, it is imperative to retrain your amygdala utilizing different neurologically-based strategies and breathing techniques rather than trying to find a reason why you feel these symptoms or why you react in certain ways. In future blogs we discuss more therapy applications and strategies to help solve amygdala-based anxiety.
1. Pittman, Catherine M. and Karle, Elizabeth M. Rewire your anxious brain: how to use the neuroscience of fear to end anxiety, panic, and worry. Published and distributed by Harbinger Publications, 2015.
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