The Role of the Amygdala

Posted by owner on September 3rd, 2014 — in Memories

The proverbial “they” say we all carry baggage and most of it is crap that we need to let go.  What they don’t tell you is that old crap has a mind of its own. It’s sneaky, too, for no matter how much time you spend digging through it, sorting it out, and mucking it out your emotional door, without warning –BANG – there it is again!  One day you’re floating along blissfully content, congratulating yourself on being a survivor, knowing  all is right and always will be.  All the while old crap is sitting back, watching and waiting for you to feel comfy-cozy.  Okay! Let’s wipe that smile off her face! Old crap doesn’t even bother to knock and ask politely if it can return, it simply barges in, barreling through the doorway of the mind and reinstalling itself without so much as a by-your-leave.  

I’ve got to say, it’s pretty embarrassing when something triggers those old feelings you thought you had a handle on. This is especially true for someone like me – the energy worker, writer, spiritual enthusiast — so when I read Susan Cain’s Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, it left me cheering.  Every introvert should read this book for a boost to self esteem.  In fact, every extrovert should read this book to understand that personality traits, such as introversion and extroversion, are at least 50% genetically hard wired and that extroverts need introverts for balance.

A prime take-away for me was the discussion of several scientific experiments, notably the one which focused on overcoming fear (aka old crap).  As countless scientists, healers, and energy workers have discovered, when something negative happens to us, it embeds itself into our psyche and we learn from it, whether it be positive or negative.  Those lessons are stored in a little place in the brain called the amygdala. When we encounter a situation reminiscent of something negative from our past, the amygdala kicks in and takes control. This could be anything from losing our temper, crying, withdrawing, or shaking with fear.  I strive to overcome the negative lessons and release them from my body, either through writing, Reiki, massage, or whatever.  It makes me feel better.

 In her book, Susan Cain relates an experiment in which rats were trained to grab a food pellet when they heard a specific sound.  Once the poor rats learned to race for their food at the sound of the bell, the scientists began to shock the rats when they took the pellet.  Now the rats had learned a new behavior – fear.  After awhile, the scientists stopped shocking the rats and gradually they returned to scarfing up food pellets.  They had released their fear of the shock treatment or so the scientists thought. When the scientists cut the connection between the brain’s pleasure center and the amygdala, which part of the brain do you think took charge?  The amygdala!  The rats were once again fearful of the food pellets even though they were not being shocked.

This was a revelation for me. Now I understand why old crap or fear returns and takes over – it never left in the first place!  At best, we learn coping mechanisms so when we are uncomfortable, our brain must make a decision: fear or cope? This explains my dog Oro’s behavior.   She is a rescue dog and, in her past, was abused.  Initially, she was fearful of strangers, including me, and would hide in a corner.  Eventually she learned to trust me and a few other people. She’s  a good dog and likes her life, but sometimes her old fearful behavior returns.  At that point, I have to retrain her to come out of her hidey-holes and enjoy her life again.

If we work hard, eventually we develop skills to overcome our fears, but that’s all they are: tools to use to get us through sticky situations. Despite my introversion, I’ve become accustomed to leading writing workshops, groups, and book clubs.  I’m good at it, too, which is why I frequently get asked to come back and lead another group.  Yet, every time, right before a session begins, my amygdala throws down the gauntlet and challenges me to a duel.  I can do this – no you can’t. I CAN do this – NO, YOU CAN’T!   My palms sweat, my throat aches for water, my belly flips, and my head pounds.  I CAN DO THIS! I plaster a smile on my face, take a deep breath, chug some water, force myself to relax and begin.

A few years ago, one of my mentors taught me that the most you can do with old, negative feelings is make a decision to place them in an imaginary box, wrap them up, tie them with a string and tuck them away in a dusty, dark corner of the brain never to be opened again. She was right: we can’t release the old crap but we do have a choice.  We can refuse to open the box, strengthen our connections, consider our options, and move forward.  We can learn to overcome. And isn’t that a good thing?