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Feeling Impulsive Or Overly Emotional? Here Are 3 Proven Ways To Calm Down An Overactive Amygdala

Updated on 6 May 2020 • 4 minute read
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We are not thinking machines that feel; rather, we are feeling machines that think.

– Antonio Damasio, neuroscientist

If you have a tough time controlling your emotions or you constantly find yourself reacting impulsively to situations and then regretting your actions later you might have an overactive or malfunctioning amygdala.

The human amygdala forms part of your limbic system (aka emotional brain) which is the brain region that oversees emotional responses/emotional states such as fear, anger, and pleasure as well as drives for hunger, sex, nurturing, and competition. 

 

There are three distinct brain systems or brain structures inside your head:

 

1- The Primitive Brain: 

Located in the innermost part of the brain, aka brain stem.

This brain oversees our most basic survival functions such as heart rate and blood pressure and breathing.

The affirmation of this brain’s consciousness is: ‘Stay alive’ for the sake of self-preservation.

 

2- The Emotional Brain: 

Located in the middle part of the brain called the limbic system.

This instinctual brain oversees the fear and stress responses as well as our emotional memories.

The affirmation of this brain’s consciousness is: ‘Avoid pain, seek pleasure’

3- The Thinking Brain: 

Located in the outermost part of the brain called the neocortex.

This brain is what allows our prefrontal cortex to experience ‘metacognition’ or ‘thinking about our thinking.’

It’s what allows us to move beyond knee-jerk impulses so we can experience imagination, inspiration, and creativity.

 

Meet Your Amygdala:

The amygdala constructs reality based on emotional patterning from the past, which colors your current perceptions and reactions. 

Strong emotional experiences become your body’s emotional history. 

These emotional histories will condition how you feel and react to situations now.

You can be operating like a split-screen, your rational or conceptual mind saying one thing and your feelings another because of stored emotional histories.

– Doc Childre & Deborah Rozman, Transforming Anxiety: The HeartMath Solution for Overcoming Fear & Worry & Creating Serenity

The amygdala (aka amygdaloid) is the almond-shape series of neural circuits located deep in the brain’s temporal lobe.

Amygdala function is related to emotional learning, memory systems (how your brain processes and stores memories), decision making, and pleasure / fear responses. (1)

Various neuroimage fMRI studies (functional magnetic resonance imaging) have shown amygdala activity in response to emotional facial expressions. (2)

 

Think of your amygdala as your very own built-in alarm system that will go off whenever it perceives a threat or potentially painful situation.

 

It plays an important role in “defending” and keeping you safe and in your comfort zone too.

It’s like an eavesdropper on your environment – when you experience a negative emotion the amygdala response is to sound the alarm to alert your hypothalamus.

Your hypothalamus acts like a command center that communicated with the rest of your body through your nervous system and this is how the stress response (aka fight or flight response) begins.

 

According to neurobiology, the size of your amygdala matters – the larger it is the more likely you’ll exhibit impulsive and aggressive behavior. (3)

 

The role of the amygdala is connected to conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety disorders because it causes extreme reactions to emotional events, emotional stimuli, and visual stimuli.

 

Risk-taking is also known to be the amygdala’s role.

Amygdala damage such as from a traumatic brain injury or illness can impact your decision-making so you’ll be more likely to take bigger risks with smaller potential gains. (4) (5)

 

The amygdala keeps you stuck in the past.

Your amygdala influences fear conditioning and emotional memory. (6)

An overactive amygdala will lead to a state of chronic fear-based reactions and the constant subconscious activation of your emotional memory bank. (7)

Like a pavlovian dog, this conditions you to keep reacting in the same old ways and repeating the same old patterns. (recipe for feeling frustrated, stuck, and overwhelmed, right?)

 

The amygdala influences whether you get turned on or not.

It’s directly related to your emotional arousal and believe it or not, it’s been found that when a male is castrated (yikes) it shrinks by more than 30%! (3)

 

Summary: Amygdala – Emotional center:

  • Regulates our fear response (8)
  • ‘Fast Track’ because it’s literally eavesdropping on the incoming sensory information and receiving it before the thinking brain does.
  • Responsible for the physical effects and experience of stress, anxiety, trauma, and fear (beating heart, sweaty palms, hot flashes, short breaths, stress hormones)
  • Is a ‘short cut’ and operates much quicker than the thinking brain –  it can mobilize the body and create reactions in a fraction of a second.
  • Acts as an alarm system in the body whenever it detects potential danger and an aversive or harmful event.
  • Unconscious Memory
  • Birthplace of our emotional reactions, and since it’s quicker than the thinking brain this is why we often have knee jerk reactions before thinking things through.
  • Connected to the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS; “Fight or Flight”, stress response) (9)
  • Stores past emotional experiences that have meaning and significance to you and matches patterns of past experiences with current experiences to scout out potential threats.
  • The amygdala activity can literally hijack other brain processes. According to neuroscientist Joseph Ledoux, there are way more neural connections from the amygdala to the cortex (thinking brain) than vice versa (40) so it makes sense that we can’t think logically when the amygdala is sounding the alarm and we’re feeling emotional.

 

3 ways to reduce amygdala activation & increase positive emotions:

 

1 – Regular mindfulness meditation: 

Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar, PhD. runs a research lab with the purpose of studying the effects of meditation, mindfulness, and yoga on the brain.

Her team has conducted numerous tests involving neuroimaging (brain scans) to measure and track the mindfulness-based changes that happen in the brain.

She says:

“Our results suggest that meditation can produce experience-based structural alterations in the brain.

We also found evidence that meditation may slow down the age-related atrophy of certain areas of the brain.” (10)

They found that as little as 8 weeks of consistent mindfulness practice is enough to tame and shrink your amygdala.

What’s more, Lazar’s research shows that the amygdala taming is correlated with the change in stress.

The more stress reduction people reported, the smaller the amygdala got.” (11)

 

2 – Deep belly breathing: 

The relaxation response is facilitated by slow, deep breathing and cardio-respiratory synchronization (slowing down breathing to slow down heart rate).

Studies show this inhibits the amygdala and the brain’s emotional center. (12)

So it’s important to learn how to breathe properly and safely.

Starting a breathing meditation practice is easier than you think. 🙂

 

3 – Chanting:

Believe it or not, chanting helps calm the emotional brain too.

One study using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of subjects chanting found that it also significantly deactivates the amygdala. (48)

 

 

 

 

 

References:

(1) Neuron. 2005 Oct 20;48(2):175-87. Contributions of the amygdala to emotion processing: from animal models to human behavior. Phelps EA(1), LeDoux JE.

(2) https://www.jneurosci.org/content/26/35/8915

(3) https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/amygdala.htm

(4) https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/amygdala-loss-aversion/

(5) Panic Anxiety in Humans with Bilateral Amygdala Lesions: Pharmacological Induction via Cardiorespiratory Interoceptive PathwaysSahib S. Khalsa, Justin S. Feinstein, Wei Li, Jamie D. Feusner, Ralph Adolphs, Rene HurlemannJournal of Neuroscience 23 March 2016, 36 (12) 3559-3566; DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4109-15.2016

(6) Annu Rev Neurosci. 2004;27:1-28. The amygdala modulates the consolidation of memories of emotionally arousing experiences. McGaugh JL(1).

(7) The Human Amygdala, by: Paul J. Whalen & Elizabeth A. Phelps

(8) New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/21/science/21obbrain.html

(9)  The Role of the Central Nucleus of the Amygdala in Mediating Fear and Anxiety in the PrimateNed H. Kalin, Steven E. Shelton, Richard J. DavidsonJournal of Neuroscience 16 June 2004, 24 (24) 5506-5515; DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0292-04.2004

(10) https://scholar.harvard.edu/sara_lazar/home

(11) https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/5/1/11/1728269/Stress-reduction-correlates-with-structural

(12) https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Ravinder_Jerath2/publication/274965480_Self-Regulation_of_Breathing_as_a_Primary_Treatment_for_Anxiety/links/55355f550cf20ea35f10d73c.pdf

 

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