You see, the amygdala* is like the survival switch for responding to fear. When it gets a "threat" signal, it sends a cascade of chemicals through the blood stream that alter every part of our body. Our heart rate increases and we breathe more quickly....blood rushes away from our organs and into our muscles so we can fight for our life, flee from danger or even freeze (whatever is best for survival). We may have difficulty forming new memories or thinking clearly, and our digestion stops, because longer-term processes are just not needed if we are about to be injured. Our senses even become heightened so that we can take action quickly.
The great thing about this process is that it keeps us alive; it worked for our ancestors and that's why we're here. If a bear pops out in the woods, we are going to run faster than we thought we ever could. Thank you, amygdala! We all experience this response when we come really close to danger in any way. And when the threat is gone, there's a rush and our body returns to normal. What's interesting now, though, is that we rarely have very clear and acute threats like bears; yet, our amygdala is being activated chronically and the reaction is often misdirected.
We live such a complex and work-driven existence that the "threats" we perceive now are more of daily life stressors, such as getting stuck in traffic ("If I don't make my meeting I'm going to be fired"), making deadlines ("If I don't get that paper in, I'm going to fail"), and managing multiple complicated interpersonal relationships. Our interpretations of these events, even something small like traffic, can be catastrophic -- and our amygdala loves catastrophe. Cue high heart rate, blood pressure, and mental unrest!
That little nub of brain matter quite literally controls us. You can see proof of that when someone gets angry or has an intense stress reaction and there's no way to logically calm them down. They've interpreted the situation a certain way, their amygdala is in gear, and the flood gates have opened. That happens to us all sometimes, because, well, we're alive. But it's worth examining how that stress response manifests itself negatively in our own lives....
We know that chronic high stress leads to very real negative health consequences. Yet, we continue to allow stress affect us. Stress is unavoidable and out of our control, but how we react to stress is within our control, and this starts with our own interpretations. We, as higher-level beings, critical thinkers, and planners, with the ability to contemplate our past, present, and future, have the power to gain control over our animal brain. When we become aware of being in that unhealthy, stressed state, we can begin to adjust our interpretations of situations so that the flood gates don't open fully. Our chosen interpretations of events paint our reality and guide our behavior. So it's up to us what we will allow to rule our lives: our animal brain amygdala, or our capacity for advanced, more flexible thinking.
And when we put flexible thinking into practice, our realities change, which then reinforces our flexible thinking (feedback loop). Just like practicing any kind of exercise, challenging your thinking gets easier the more you do it.
That is why I became so interested in psychology & stress. The amygdala doesn't have to control us but it often does (we especially see this in anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder). We do have the power to change it...if we decide to tap in. Interested? Me too.
*Note: Amygdalae functioning is complex and expands far beyond fear response alone. Learn more, here.