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Understanding Your Amygdala

If you’re at all familiar with the amygdala, you know it affects so much. And if you’re learning how to respond differently to your anxiety or OCD, understanding this part of our brain is essential.

What Exactly Is the Amygdala?

The amygdala is a part of our brains’ temporal lobe that helps us process emotions. Think of it as a cluster of almonds behind each of your ears — really powerful almond clusters. The amygdala can do things like cause your body to react to fear, teach you not to touch hot stoves, and even give to charity.

Not to be underestimated, its powerful message can take over your entire body. Hello, panic attack.

Your amygdala is your alarm system. It sounds the alarm when there’s danger. For example, it tells you to run when there’s a bear chasing you. It can also make you feel like something is too much to handle, even when that something isn’t necessarily dangerous.

Known as your “fight-or-flight response,” this alarm can produce sweaty palms, butterflies in your stomach, fainting, nausea, and any variety of other reactions that we commonly lump together as “anxiety” or conversely “anticipation.” Whether it’s scaring you or exciting you, the amygdala activates in milliseconds.

What Does the Amygdala Do?

First and foremost, it processes fear. It tells your body to react a certain way to different scenarios. It also tells you not to do things, like walk into a burning fire. We need our amygdala because it warns us of danger in order to keep us safe and alive.

Think of it as your built-in threat-detecting system.

By design, it goes off when it senses danger. The challenge is that it doesn’t necessarily calibrate the danger’s level. For instance, when you smell smoke, the amygdala sends out the signal. Because this happens so quickly, it can’t yet know if your house is on fire or if you’ve simply burnt the toast.

Your amygdala is also very finicky. It can totally change its mind (well, your mind) depending on the context. One second, you’re excited, the next you’re panicking. Sometimes the amygdala alarm gets stuck, and we can’t rationalize situations in our lives.

The Amygdala and Our Anxiety Response

The brain learns what we teach it. When we respond to situations with panic, worry or even just giving it attention, we train the amygdala to continue being vigilant in this specific situation and also anything that remotely looks like it. The amygdala is just doing its thing. it’s our job to teach it (by how we respond) if it’s indeed an emergency, something important or a false alarm.

The good news is that there are evidence-based treatment models to get it unstuck.

With OCD, we use Exposure and Response Prevention. With anxiety disorders, we use exposure-based CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy). These treatment models help us learn how to be okay with the discomfort and to respond to our amygdala without resisting the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings it produces. With exhaustive repetition, your amygdala will learn that certain situations aren’t dangerous. It’ll become less sensitized, lowering our threat system.

In the simplest of terms, I’m in the business of retraining your amygdala.

Working with a licensed therapist is the key to learning how to do this. If you live in Ohio, please reach out. If you’re out of state, check out the IOCDF or ADAA websites for providers in your area.