So, you’ve been to therapy, attended weekly yoga classes, tried medication, practice mindfulness and meditation. Why isn’t your mood improving? Why do you feel like your nervous system is always on alert? Well, it may have something to do with your amygdala.
Let me introduce you to the alarm system of the brain. The amygdala is part of the limbic system. Among other things this system is mainly responsible for emotions. Especially anger, violence, fear and anxiety.
If you orient yourself to the top of the page, you will see a diagram of this pathway in the brain. Here’s how it works:
Say we receive a visual stimulus, that stimulus travels to the thalamus, the relay station of the brain, the thalamus then sends that info directly to the amygdala. Now if you notice the same stimulus goes directly to the visual cortex at the back of the brain and then also gets relayed to the amygdala. The amygdala then decides based on stored memories if the stimulus is a threat. If it interprets that stimulus as potentially harmful, it triggers the release of adrenaline which is responsible for the “fight or flight response”. This prepares your body to fight or run away. So, it engages the sympathetic nervous system. What this does is increase muscle tension, increase blood pressure, increases heart rate, suppresses digestion, and causes you to sweat. In this survival mode your “thinking brain” goes off line for the most part. It’s more difficult to think rationally.
Now most of the stressful situations we encounter in our daily lives, don’t include running away from tigers and bears, but the reaction, especially victims of trauma, is still the same. So, if you’ve been exposed to a traumatic situation, like a car accident, the thalamus relays the information to the amygdala, the amygdala triggers the release of adrenaline and relays the experience to the hippocampus, which is responsible for converting short term memory into long term memory. Why is this important? Because the next time something similar happens the amygdala will react even faster and with more intensity. Its role is to keep us safe.
But often it is reacting to implicit memories (subconscious information that’s been stored) that we aren’t even aware of and that leads to anxiety or panic attacks that seem to have no logical basis. It can also lead to pleasant reactions. Let me give you an example. For several years, every time a diesel truck went by, I was filled with a peaceful content feeling. I didn’t actually enjoy the odor of the fuel, but for an unexplained reason it was a pleasant experience.
When I later took a trip to Portugal, I was often exposed to this same odor. Diesel at the time was the chosen fuel for cars and trucks. I have fond memories of living in Portugal as a child and what I discovered is that this pungent odor was associated with the country I was born and forever linked by the amygdala and hippocampus to my pleasant experiences of family in Portugal. The olfactory bulb has a direct connection to the amygdala and hippocampus. So, in this case, the amygdala did not see a threat so no alarm was sent but the hippocampus recalled these pleasant feelings. Interestingly enough, once that was brought to conscious awareness, I no longer have the same intense pleasant reaction to that stimulus.
The same thing happens with negative traumatic experiences. They often get stored as unconscious memories only accessible to the amygdala when it encounters potentially similar occasions. So, with respect to the car accident, now every time we get in the car we get anxious and have panic attacks. It is the alarm system saying, “Stop, we’ve done this before and it wasn’t safe”. Most of the time psychotherapy can help us get through this, by engaging our frontal lobe (the thinking, logical brain) into telling the amygdala that every time we get in the car it’s not dangerous. And that it’s not reasonable to live in fear of driving. And most of the time this works. But what can we do when it doesn’t?
How do we break this unhealthy repetitive pattern of reacting? Medication can help by dampening down the amygdala, but the trouble is, as soon as you stop, the issues return. When someone asks you or you ask yourself, “Why can’t I just relax and be optimistic?” and you’ve tried several therapies without much improvement, it may be that your amygdala needs to be calmed. In neurofeedback we refer to this as lowering the arousal of the amygdala and the limbic system as a whole.
So here is where neurofeedback can help. In simple traumatic experiences, trauma with a small t, it’s often enough to stabilize the brain. When this happens whether the memories are recalled or not, the brain is stable, and emotions stay calm. We do this by assessing the electrical activity of the brain (brainwaves) and we help the client to regulate those brainwaves creating a calmer state of mind.
However, in Trauma with a big T, like child abuse or neglect, especially trauma that happened during the developmental stages of the growing brain, these memories might be subconscious, completely hidden from conscious awareness. In this case what often happens is that by stabilizing the brain, it releases these emotions and memories, it allows them to surface. Once these memories surface it then becomes important to work with a trauma specialist to process those experiences. Where psychotherapy wasn’t helping before, it now can be very effective. Neurofeedback facilitates this by allowing the recall of these memories without the intensity of the emotion initially attached to the experience.