The Anxious Brain

Anxiety and the Amygdala

I am going to try my best not to get too lost in the neuroscience here and keep this introduction to your amygdala on a strictly need to know basis! The amygdala is a little part of your brain that is the centre for emotion, instinct, survival and memory. The amygdala is a quick learner and learns mainly by association, linking what our senses are experiencing to emotional responses. This is known as the top-down pathway, where the amygdala forms an emotional response based on what the information provided by the senses; taste, smell, sound, touch and sight.

The sensation is processed by the pre-frontal cortex and the amygdala exacts a response based on memory and the information provided by the senses. This is designed to help you choose an appropriate physical action regardless of whether the corresponding emotion is a positive or negative one.

As an example, the song that was playing in the car moments before you were involved in a car accident. Your amygdala then associates that song with the shock and perhaps pain of the accident. The song is no longer one you may like to listen to due to the associated negative emotion. 

There’s another way that the amygdala responds in order to create emotion and action. This is the bottom-up pathway and is somewhat more primal. This can be involved in the fight or flight reflex and explains how your body can respond before your mind has had time to process a sensation. 

For instance, jumping back from a rearing snake before you even realise what is lunging at you. This is a vital survival process, but the bottom-up pathway doesn’t really serve us in non-life-threatening situations. 

If your amygdala is highly reactive, it can initiate panic and fear in response to thought and imagery without any other sensory input. Just thinking and worrying can lead to sweating, increased heart rate, shortness of breath and other symptoms of anxiety and panic. 

The good news is that the amygdala is highly efficient and can be trained to respond differently. You can change your brain! This is a technique often used as part of exposure therapy, wherein you train your amygdala to create new associations with experiences that induce a little bit of fear and anxiety. In this way, avoidance of anxiety inducing situations can prolong the problem, whilst exposure with support can help to prevent ongoing anxieties.

This can take a bit of discipline to the get the hang of – creating positive associations through gratitude practices is one way. Allowing your mind to experience uncomfortable thoughts or situations whilst at the same time practicing diaphragmatic breathing (diaphragmatic breathing helps to down-regulate the reactivity of the amygdala) is another. It is best to seek the support of a professional to guide you through these types of activities so that the amygdala creates only beneficial and resilient associations.

Becoming aware of your thought processes and how they influence your emotional response is another great start – I find journaling is the best way to figure out why I am thinking a certain way and how I react emotionally. I can then decide what needs to change!

Side note: Anti-anxiety medications such as benzodiazepine drugs work because they inhibit the amygdala’s reactivity. This also means that the amygdala is much slower to learn new positive associations under their influence. Benzodiazapines can also be addictive and include some unattractive side effects that are important to be aware of. 

You can read more about top-down emotional processing here

Alexandra McPhee