Anxiety and the Amygdala

Anxiety.  A perfectly normal reaction developed by humans a long, long, long time ago.  When you feel anxious, your amygdala kicks in and tells your body to get ready for something.  The amygdala is a small piece of your brain about the size of an almond.  Your eyes dilate so you can see better, your breathing increases so your blood gets oxygenated and pumps into your muscles to prepare you for physical danger.  Clearly this was a useful response for doing battle, hunting prey, and living in the wild.

Fortunately, we no longer have to worry about the same environment threats as our ancestors did.  Unfortunately, our amygdala hasn’t evolved as much as society in the last 100,000+ years.  Given the fast pace of today’s society, we encounter emotionally stressful situations on a regular basis.  Facing a deadline at school or work is just one example of a negative stressor.  Positive events, such as winning a competition and giving an acceptance speech, can cause anxiety.  The amygdala simply senses stress and prepares the body to defend itself.

To complicate matters, if you experience anxiety often,  it means your amygdala is signaling your brain to release epinephrine (the chemical responsible for adrenaline) at times when there may not be a need for the boost to your body.  This over stimulation is a vicious circle.  It can interfering with personal relationships, work, school, and often makes the tasks of day-to-to living incredibly difficult.  Many people partner with a psychologist or psychiatrist to address their anxiety issues.  The good news, you see, is that the amygdala is trainable.

For example,  fMRI research studies show that meditating activates parts of the brain associated with attention and decreases activation in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that kicks off the fight-or-flight response.  Sensory deprivation has also emerged as an effective way to induce low frequency theta brain waves, which indicate a deeply relaxed state.  Research from the International Journal of Stress Management suggests that people with anxiety could gain therapeutic benefits from floating.   After 12 float therapy sessions, study participants reported reduced pain, stress, anxiety and depression.  Improved sleep and optimism were also noted.  The positive effects of floating also continued to benefit study participants for months after treatment stopped.

Bottom line, anxiety is often the result of an overactive amygdala, which can be addressed.  Don’t give up on psychology or psychiatry, but do consider layering in guided meditation or floating as part of your treatment regimen.  All you really have to lose is your anxiety!

Rob Cruz
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