Happy New Year to all! I hope that everyone survived the holidays? Mine was very relaxing this year (I know, I was suspicious too) – I didn’t plan much and spent most of my time walking Rigby, eating and watching TV. I was true to my word about making time for Headspace every morning, which certainly helped.
The alcohol in moderation thing went really well too and I was proud of myself… until NYE, oh dear… Look at the photo below. (Yep that happened.. ) The old guy was called Mike Myers (weird) and sang like Sinatra.
But then afterwards a pre-op transvestite stripped on stage and lowered the tone.. He rubbed his/her balls on the stripper pole… Not sure who was in charge of entertainment that night, but it was certainly varied.
I realise that tomorrow is officially the ‘back to reality’ of work day, but lets just ignore this for now. Although tbh I’m craving some structure and routine in my life. There’s only so many episodes of Family Guy that a girl can watch.
Over the last week I’ve been thinking about the Amygdala – I know, I clearly need a hobby.
I’ve referenced the amygdala previously in the post; Me, myself and amygdala But I’d like to go into more detail, as I find the topic fascinating.
- The part of the brain which controls our reaction to danger. Otherwise know as ‘fight, flight or freeze.’
- It is the body’s internal smoke alarm that is triggered by situations the brain deems to be dangerous. E.g Car crash, fire, monster under the bed…
The amygdala is a remarkable thing, it’s the reason why humans have survived and evolved.. We have a highly sophisticated defence mechanism that never sleeps. Always on the look out for threats and hazards. Imagine a cave man doing ‘cave man stuff’ when suddenly he spots movement from the corner of his eye. It’s a hungry lion… The amygdala bursts into action and immediately floods the body with the adrenaline he needs to run away or fight. E.g. His blood retreats deep into the tissue to prevent fatal bleeding if struck. His skin sweats, making his body slippery and difficult to grab. His heart pounds flooding his muscles with energy and strength.
I like to think of this system as a kind of superpower. The mother who in one moment can lift a car to save her baby… Or the policeman who is shot but still manages to wrestle his attacker without pain… When survival is under threat the amygdala provides the strength and resolve needed.
It also has an excellent memory. E.g we were attacked by a lion previously, so I’m going to put lions on the danger list.
Sounds great right?
HOWEVER – what happens when this key part of the brain has some programming errors? What if it reacts to subjective threats based on emotion rather than genuine life threatening ones? For instance, the loss of a job or an interview?
Glen Coleman refers to an ‘Amygdala Hijack’ and cites the classic Mike Tyson ear biting incident. In one moment Tyson lost control of his emotions and reacted inappropriately.
But why and how? According to Coleman: At the moment a threat is perceived, the amygdala can override the neocortex, the center of higher thinking, and initiate an extreme response. In the wild or in the presence of actual physical threats, this can be a life-saving function. In ordinary day-to-day living, however, this amygdala hijack can inspire impulsive responses the person will later regret.
In plain English because not all of us understand words like neocortex! – During a moment of intense fear the amygdala overrides the rational part of the brain. It screams: OH MY GOD WE’RE GOING TO DIE, DO SOMETHING! Therefore provoking a person to react dramatically and embarrass themselves.
A classic example from my own experiences would be the time I walked out of an interview. I had my first real panic attack and thought that I was about to either explode or lose my sanity. So I made a dramatic excuse about feeling sick and literally ran out of the room. I felt humiliated and sobbed afterwards. What a ridiculous way to react, why had I done that?
I now understand that my amygdala perceived the interview to be life threatening (think Hunger Games) and immediately sprang into action. My refusal to react and my attempts to ignore the alarm bells then triggered the panic attack. In general, panic attacks are caused by massive surges of adrenaline. If the adrenaline is not used then violent internal reactions occur:
- Pounding heart – to give the body more energy
- Shallow breathing
- Stomach cramps/need to void bowels – the digestive system is not needed during a life threatening situation and is therefore temporarily shut down
- Heavy/numb muscles – the blood is retreating into the tissue
- Sweating – this makes the body slippery and difficult to grab
- Feeling faint – due to shallow breathing
If the body reacts as the brain demands (run away, fight etc) then the above will not be felt in such extremities, as the adrenaline is being used.
In contrast, if said adrenaline is not used then a panic attack will ensue. Think about it, the brain is screaming: WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WE’RE ABOUT TO DIE! – and you are ignoring the warning.
Unfortunately it isn’t really appropriate to punch your interviewer in the face or run screaming from the building, (although it would be a good story for the grandkids.)
To improve the situation the amygdala essentially needs to be reprogrammed. How do you do that? Well annoyingly there isn’t ONE solid answer (don’t you just HATE that about mental health? Why can’t there just be one freaking solution?)
Below are some of the things that have helped me:
- Exposure therapy – this takes time but it is highly effective. Try exposing your amygdala to a situation that previously caused distress in small and steady dosages. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that you should jump off a cliff if you’re afraid of heights! This is about baby steps. For example, if train travel makes you anxious then try to do a related activity every few days:
1. Watch train travel on YouTube
2. Close your eyes and pretend to be on a train
3. Walk past the train station
4. Walk to the train station, but don’t go in..
The basic principle is to slowly expose yourself to fear, experience the fear and then act with passive acceptance. This will communicate to the amygdala that it is not a life threatening situation and that there is no need to trigger a defence. For more information visit anxietycoach
- Positive visualisation – It is said that the human brain ‘thinks’ in pictures. Therefore, mentally visualising a situation will penetrate the subconscious at a deeper level.
For example, If you dread bumping into your boss at work then visualise how you would like the situation to be. Imagine what you would say and picture your boss smiling back at you encouragingly. It sounds cheesy, but give it a try. This is an excellent way to calm the amygdala before a stressful event.
- Scent association – this is something that I’ve come up with myself, so bare with me! Sense of smell is a very powerful thing and can stimulate memories and feelings instantly (both good and bad) – I shudder when I smell Lynx Africa because it reminds me of my Ex, but I love the smell of pastry because it reminds me of home. Therefore, I’ve started burning lavender oil during periods of relaxation or before bed. If I can associate the smell with ‘calm’ then perhaps it will help to relax my amygdala when I feel anxious. Certainly worth a shot!
In other news. I’ve officially started a YouTube channel. – Please feel free to ‘add me’ so I don’t look like a complete loser!
Sometimes it’s easier for me to explain things visually and hopefully the channel will help me to do that. Feel free to send comments on anything you like/dislike I’m not really comfortable with hearing my voice out loud yet, so I may sound slightly awkward. Only two videos at the moment, but I aim to do one a week.
Best wishes to all for the new year.
Categories: Panic Attacks