If you look deep inside your brain (please, don’t), you’ll find a part of your brain that’s critical for emotion, behavior, and thought – your amygdala. Your brain has two amygdalae, one in each hemisphere, which received their name from the Greek word amygdale, meaning almond due to their shape. Your amygdala is a part of your limbic system, a part of your brain that manages emotions and behaviors.
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Your Fight or Flight Response
When we are in stressful situations, our amygdala sends a signal to the hypothalamus that creates changes within our body to prepare us to face the stressful situation. Specifically, our sympathetic nervous system is activated after the hypothalamus sends signals to the adrenal glands by way of the autonomic nervous system. In response to these signals, your adrenal glands begin pumping adrenalin, or epinephrine, into the bloodstream. This results in what is known as our fight or flight response, which activates our sympathetic nervous system. If we are continuing to perceive a situation as dangerous, your body responds by pressing the “gas pedal” of your stress response, and stops when threatened.1
While this is helpful to keep us safe in some situations, chronic stress can occur. Over time, chronic stress can damage the body in different ways, such as increasing blood pressure. It’s important to learn how to recognize when you are experiencing stress and, when it’s safe for you, to begin to activate your parasympathetic nervous system in order to prevent a prolonged or chronic stress response.
When we are perceiving situations in our life that aren’t an immediate threat, yet our nervous system is in fight or flight, we may find ourselves experiencing amygdala hijack. During this, our prefrontal cortex gets shut down which can cause us to experience disorientation. It becomes difficult to feel in control of our reactions because our nervous system is reacting to perceived danger rather than mindfully responding. In order to help ourselves shift back into parasympathetic dominance, mindfulness can help.2
Being aware of the narrative you may be assigning to the situation is essential, because the way we frame a situation can add meaning that may not really be there. This takes deliberate practice over time to cultivate awareness. Considering other narratives could also seem true can promote mental flexibility and help you to step back from investment in an unconstructive story about the events at hand.
Being aware of your body and observing what’s happening without judgement are ways to be mindful of the present moment. You may notice you are holding onto tension; this is an opportunity to breathe deeply and release tension. Slow, deep breathing activates our parasympathetic nervous system which can help us shift out of fight or flight mode. Check out my previous post on the benefits of breathing for stress management by clicking here.
Sarah Tronco, LCSW, provides online counseling in New Jersey and works to develop a strong therapeutic relationship with her clients, which helps to create a secure place where individuals can achieve meaningful change.
Sarah Tronco, LCSW, now also provides online counseling in Pennsylvania, contact her to learn more.
- Photo by Sarah Lee on Unsplash