Panic Attacks And Your Amygdala
Did you know you have a guard dog? Yup! Your amygdala is your unconscious guard dog.
How many of you have suffered a panic attack and had no clue what triggered it? Have you ever been hit by a fast-moving freight train called anxiety? If so, you can blame your amygdala for that. Your amygdala is responsible for your fight-or-flight, and its prime job is to respond quickly to emergencies.
When your amygdala senses you’re in danger, whether you are or not, it will rapid fire to alert you of danger. Once your symptoms simmer down a bit, you may begin to feel crazy because you can see that you’re in no apparent danger. You may eventually seek therapy and explain to your counselor, “I realize I’m not in danger, but no matter what I do, I still panic. Something must be wrong with me.”
Well my friend, let me break it down for you. You’re not crazy! The problem is, your amygdala isn’t taking your phone call. No matter what you say to yourself, your amygdala will continue to rapid fire until you retrain it. You have to retrain your watchdog not to attack. For new learning to occur, your amygdala must be activated (aka freaking out). You have to feel the fear to create new memories, and this is how you do it:
Let’s say you were bitten by a dog as a child, and are now terrified of dogs. Every time a dog crosses your path, your amygdala starts screaming “Dog bad, Dog bad, Dog bad” and you flee. Next time, what you need to do is hang out with your screaming amygdala and not run away. Your amygdala will slowly begin to silence itself because it sees you didn’t flee when you saw the dog. It will realize that dogs are fantastic and not dangerous (for the most part). For this to be successful, your fear must decrease while you’re in contact with the object or activity that is triggering you. If you flee, you are only strengthening the original learning (dog = dangerous). If you avoid fleeing, you will begin to form new associations to the object or activity, and strengthening of these associations will occur through repetition.
Your prime job is to sit comfortably with your symptoms. Do not try to talk them away or flee. You can think of yourself as a bobber in the ocean, and just float with the wave of anxiety, panic, or fear. Easier said than done, I know, but if you follow along, you’ll get all sorts of tips on how to sit with anxiety.
Disclaimer: if you are in real danger, do not do this! By all means, flee. Sitting with fear is appropriate when you are in no apparent danger.