Turn down that amygdala! Neuroscience has finally caught up to buddhist teachings that are 2500 years old! They have confirmed that we can indeed change our brain chemistry to reduce intense negative emotions, no drugs needed. Good news for all the skeptics out there. Scientists looked at peoples brains in a study while they flashed faces on a screen in various negative emotional states. Their amygdala lit up as soon as the images came on the screen, which makes sense since this is our danger alert center in our brains. The amygdala is activated to protect us and gear up for danger. It prepares our bodies for fighting danger even when it is not necessary, which causes anxiety. It leaves us with feeling our hearts racing, sweating, feeling our skin crawl, and generally just having a lot of nervous energy that makes us uncomfortable.
However they found that when people then had to label the emotions they saw on the faces their amygdala activity decreased and the other side of the brain, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex which is located behind our forehead and eyes) lit up. It is linked with thinking in words about emotional experiences as well as inhibiting behavior. Language processing is usually occurring on the left side of the brain however this is the only region on the right side that lights up specific to processing language of emotions. If we can help our brains use this part it will put the brakes on our amygdala, telling the amygdala "hey hey we aren’t in danger we are feeling very sad, or worried, or overly stressed about x, y, z. I know this feeling, it is sadness, I feel it in x, y, z part of my body when I feel sad, I feel my chest tighten when I’m sad, not because my life is at risk.” Then the amygdala says, "Okay cool man I’ll back off and let you process that on the other side of the brain." Try these 3 tips to help regulate that pesky amygdala:
1. Write down your feelings. Some people find journaling cathartic and relieving. Some people never want any evidence of how they feel laying around for someone to find. That’s okay either way. Writing down your feelings can help your brain process your emotions with language and this gives a sense of relief when we are done. People say the expression, “I feel so much better I got that off my chest, or out of my head” This has truth to it.
2. Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, non judgmentally. This helps ground you in the present moment and label how you are feeling in that exact moment, how your body is feeling in that moment, and accepting it for what it is. Labeling it gently and without judgment. It helps you really get to the root of what is going on in that moment for you.
3. Talk. Talk about your feelings with someone, anyone. Make sure it is someone you can fully tell your true feelings to, otherwise it won’t have the same effect. Whether it’s a family member, friend or therapist, talking about how you feel uses language center to label those emotions and process them in the brain so they become integrated and disruptive symptoms you have be having of anxiety become less intense, and can even disappear over time.
Something to consider, this part of brain develops in our preteen to teenage years. It is possible that our experiences with others (family, friends, etc) could shape the development of this area of processing our emotions. Perhaps how our family did or more likely, did not, process emotions could play a role how we learn to process emotions and not make this area as strong, or just make us behaviorally less likely to verbalize emotions so this area is used less.
Good news! You can learn to use it now even as an adult. You simply have to ask yourself how you are feeling and answer the question with an emotion. The more able you are at doing this and understanding how you feel emotionally the less anxious you will feel because you will be turning the amygdala off.