The amygdala is part of the limbic system and plays an essential role in processing emotion. This article will focus on the role of the amygdala in processing the emotion of anxiety.
Dr Elaine Ryan Psychologist
Page last reviewed and updated by Dr Elaine Ryan on
18 June 2020
In this article, I am going to cover
- What is your amygdala?
- What does your amygdala do?
- What is its role in anxiety?
What is your amygdala?
If you have read about the amygdala before you would be forgiven for thinking that you have only one, but in reality, you have two. Still, we generally refer to them in the singular – amygdala. The amygdala is part of the limbic system. I might write a more detailed article on the limbic system, but for now, I shall explain it, in terms of what is essential for you to know to understand your amygdala and anxiety.
Brief overview of your limbic system.
The limbic system helps with emotions, memory and your instinctual survival reactions. For example, if you never saw a wasp before and suddenly got stung, you will remember this for the future to hopefully avoid getting stung again.
There are different parts (if you like) of the limbic system, but in this quick overview I am only going to introduce you to two;
- the amygdala and
- the hippocampus
For the purpose of this article all you need to know at the minute is that the amygdala is responsible for emotions and
helps with the formation of new memories and the emotions that relate to them.
With the wasp example, your amygdala can sense the fear and the pain of the sting. The hippocampus can help with the sight of the wasp, along with the pain and fear experienced, to be encoded into memory.
This memory is useful because the next time you see a wasp or something similar to a wasp, the image will be matched up with “things that can harm you” in your memory and you will feel enough fear to avoid the wasp.
What does your amygdala do?
In order to give you a quick idea of what your amygdala does, I find it helpful (in the context of this article) to think of your amygdala as being able to receive inputs from your external environment, via your senses.
If you watch the video below, when you see something out of the corner of your eye, this image is quickly matched up with similar things stored in memory. It could be something that could harm you, and your amygdala then gives you the appropriate emotional emotion. Your amygdala will
- help you to feel fear
- alert your autonomic nervous system to prepare you for danger
Once you realise it was a mistake, that it was only a small kitten, your body will calm down again.
This is very important in terms of anxiety.
The amygdala’s role in anxiety
If you consider the video above, you can see that it is possible to feel fear even though the scary animal turn out to be a kitten. This happens automatically as it is better to get you ready for danger rather than take a chance. In the video, if you think of the part when I say “it has four legs” this can quickly be scanned in your brain against similar things that could cause danger, it could be a bear.
At the start of this article I sort of hinted that the amygdala and hippocampus can work together. If you have a strong emotional reaction to something, such as getting stung by a wasp, this is more likely to get stored in long term memory as something that can harm you, and can result in a fear reaction if a harmless house fly buzzes past you.
- You feel the anxiety, as it is something that is flying – wasps can fly
- It makes a buzzing sound similar to a wasp
You get an anxious response to prepare you for something that harmed you in the past.
An important point to note in the wasp example is that, if you have been stung before, this will have resulted in a very strong emotional reaction. The stronger the emotional reaction, the more likely it will get stored in your brain as something that can harm you.
If you have a panic attack in a particular shop, this will give you a very strong emotional reaction and your brain will take note. You could match up the shop in long term memory as something that is dangerous for you. This would mean the next time you are in the shop, or a shop that is similar you may automatically experience anxiety.
- The original panic attack result in strong emotions, such as fear, terror, not able to breathe
- Your hippocampus takes note and remembers this for you, should you encounter something similar in the future
If this is happening to you, traditional models of therapy that focus on your thought processes, may miss the automatic panic that you feel when you approach the shop.
You don’t have to experience panic attacks for this to happen. If feel nervous or anxious in, for example, work situations the following example may help you to understand this.
You might have had an ‘incident’ with your boss and felt your heart pound, your face go red. If your emotional reaction was strong enough, this can get matched up with your boss and stored in memory to prepare you for the next time. So the next time you see your boss, or someone similar, you can automatically feel anxiety.
Why some therapy fails
If you recognise yourself in the above examples, therapy that focused only on your thought processes may not have helped you as the focus more on anticipatory anxiety. This is because your anxiety may be more automatic, almost instinctual, and in this case you need to understand your brain and learn to calm down your amygdala.
It will be helpful for you to understand how your brain remembered to be anxious!
You need to unlearn some automatic reactions and retrain your brain to be calm in situations that will not cause your harm.
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