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Amygdala attacks: Symptoms, triggers and coping strategies

We have all heard of fight or flight (or fight, flight, freeze), but what’s actually happening in those situations. To better understand we need to take a look at the amygdala.

This is a collection of cells near the base of the brain. There are one in each hemisphere or side of the brain and this is where emotions are given meaning, remembered, and attached to associations and responses to them (emotional memories). The amygdala is essential to feel certain emotions. This includes fear and the many physical changes it causes in the body and it has become known as the ‘fear centre of the brain.

This all keeps us alert and aware of our surroundings. Without this we certainly wouldn’t have evolved to where we are now. When our brain thinks there is a threat or danger, it releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, we prepare to run away, to fight back, or to stay still. This makes us feel more vigilant of what’s happening and our hearts beat faster, and blood is sent where it’s needed the most when we’re under attack. Also in such situations, our brain stops creating serotonin a neurotransmitter that controls our moods (high levels = good mood, low levels = bad mood).

Back in the day (I mean way, way back in the day), humans being attacked by a wild animal was a very real and likely threat that we would have to respond quickly to in order to survive. In these situations, our fight-flight-freeze response is triggered by the amygdala. Although still a possibility today, it is far less likely.

But therein lies the problem. Keeping us safe from natural threats worked well when we may have been eaten by a bear. But our threats have changed. An amygdala hijack is when the overwhelming response is out of proportion with the actual situation we are in. Now we worry about money, and what people think of us, and that our latest post didn’t get any likes. We also work about the state of the world, the climate crisis, politics etc. More recently we have certainly all felt the threat of the global pandemic. For many our brain will respond in a very primal way to very modern perceptions of threats.

If this response is happening just because we need to make a phone call, or give a presentation at work, something isn’t working right! If this keeps happening, rather mundane scenarios can quickly become terrifying. I am still nervous about going to the barber having had quite a significant panic attack there a few years back (it was never my favourite experience in the world before that). Society has developed and we generally have less need for it. Nowadays, the system can get activated when there is no direct physical danger threat. For example, our fight, flight or freeze response may be triggered by having to give a presentation at work, a job interview, or even more recently even just popping to the shops.

The first step is to acknowledge that you feel threatened or stressed and that your fight-or-flight response has been triggered. Become aware of how your emotions and body react in certain situations. Understanding what is going on in your brain and your body can help process the reaction to some extent. Remind yourself that what you’re feeling is an automatic response and not necessarily the best or most logical one.

When you feel the symptoms starting, try to pause for a moment to notice what triggered it. This involves reasoning, which activates a different part of the brain. Review all your options and adopt a logical approach to deal with the situation at hand. Relaxation is also vital, and there are many tools and techniques to help with this. Relaxing your mind and body can shift your focus.

Hypnotherapy can reduce feelings of fear and intense worry and boost confidence and self-esteem. It can help you develop the ability to access the relaxed state of mind needed to overcome the overwhelming emotions that come with anxiety.

Hypnotherapy works with the unconscious mind to promote positive change. The suggestions themselves are tailored to help you change the way you react towards certain situations and bring about a more content and comfortable mindset.

Get in touch to find out more about hypnotherapy online and access hypnotherapy for anxiety.

Malcolm Struthers Hypnotherapy - Online and in-person in Dumfries & Galloway


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