I have a hyper sensitive amygdala (there’s a sentence you don’t hear every day.) By definition, the amygdala is the part of the brain which reacts to danger, fear and situations viewed as a threat. It controls your fight or flight response and releases adrenalin into your blood. I like to call it my fire alarm, spider sense, panic alarm. It is a primitive defence mechanism which helps the brain to recognise and react to danger. So basically, if I were a cave woman I’d be shit hot on the defence front.. no Saber-tooth tiger would be getting near me. Sadly I’m not a cave woman, I’m a Co-ordinator and running around screaming “Omg there’s something wrong… I’m not sure what, but I feel threatened” is unlikely to help me succeed.
In the same way that smoke would trigger any decent fire alarm.. there are very specific things which trigger mine:
- Public speaking
- Work social events
- Certain months of the year (this is a weird one, I’ll talk about later.)
My amygdala views all the above situations to be extremely dangerous, if not life threatening and consequently launches into defence mode.
That’s the most devastating thing about panic and anxiety attacks, your brain remembers the exact situation and logs the info into the safety database. What’s more frustrating is that re-programming the amygdala takes time. So in future the previous situation or something similar will most likely trigger another attack.
Mid October to January tend to be what I call ‘my dark months.’ It’s the time when my subconscious is more sensitive to stress and anxiety. It amazes me when this happens because I feel like I don’t have any control over it. My brain just recognises certain points of the year and adjusts my mood accordingly.
To clarify, I’m not completely immobile for three months every year.. I just find it that little bit harder and need to work a little harder to stay above water (not great when you’re tired or hormonal!)
Anyway, back to the amygdala (seriously Google that word, it’s a real medical term I’m not kidding.) If you’re anything like me then you’ll have spent most of your life feeling angry with yourself when you react badly in certain situations. I never understood why I couldn’t just ‘be normal’ there was clearly something wrong with me. Well ten years of behaving this way certainly didn’t help let me tell you. How was being horrible to myself ever going to improve things?!
So if I can stress anything it’s the following; “Learn to love your amygdala” oh yes, you heard me. Love,accept and thank it and you will eventually notice an improvement. In basic terms, it’s trying to protect you, not make your life worse.. it just requires a little re-training.
When my fire alarm goes off I experience the following symptoms:
- Pounding heart
- Shortness of breath
- A warm sensation circulating rapidly around my body (this is the adrenalin)
- An overwhelming feeling that something is wrong
- Specific and relentless thoughts “I can’t do this, it can’t happen here.”
So whenever you notice those ‘tell-tale’ signs rather than freaking out and making it worse (which is probably the natural reaction,) do the opposite and embrace it. Try the below instead:
- Think; “it’s ok, this is my doing, I set off the fire alarm by thinking scary thoughts and my amygdala has reacted accordingly. It’s just trying to protect me and this is completely normal.” – because it is normal and it will eventually calm down. Accept the feeling, don’t try and fight it off as this will make you feel even worse.
- Embrace the sensation. Claire Weeks calls it ‘floating.’ Rather than tensing up and deliberately trying to brace yourself, give in to the panic in the same way that you would to the stomach ‘tickling sensation’ on a roller coaster.
- Belly breathing. Clink on this link for a demonstration – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRIV2R3jzaQ Breathing this way will double the amount of oxygen in the body and help to reduce those nasty physical symptoms.
- Think nice thoughts! Rather than criticising, try comforting yourself. E.g. “It’s ok, don’t worry you know exactly what this is. It’s just a panic attack and it will go soon. The way you’re feeling now is the worst that it’s going to get, you can only feel better. Whatever happens it’ll be alright. You’ll feel horrendous for a while and then be ok again. You’re a strong person.” – Talking like this might feel a bit cringe worthy, but it’s so important to give yourself that support.
- Humour – They don’t call it the best medicine for nothing! My latest name for an attack is ‘Bertha’ (Jane Eyre reference.) I usually think something like; “oh bloody hell here we go, Bertha’s here. Perhaps we’ll end up running around the meeting room screaming together, I’m sure no one will notice!” Laughter is as powerful a force as panic and it can bring great relief. So have a laugh with yourself!
Well that turned into quite the list! I really hope that readers will find these tips useful, as they worked brilliantly for me.
Who knows, maybe I’ll start a ‘love your amygdala’ campaign…. Watch this space.