Amygdala and anxiety disorders
The amygdala is a small part of our brain located in the hippocampus’s front under the temporal lobes. The origin of its name is the Greek word amugdale or almond because of its shape.
One of its primary functions is to mobilize us in an emergency, sometimes before we are fully conscious of the threat. The amygdala initiates a fast response to danger, communicating information to the hypothalamus to prepare the body to fight-flight or flee. This response entails things such as raising heart rate and blood pressure tensing muscles, or slowing digestion. The amygdala does its evaluation quickly and is crucial to our survival. The amygdala also has a role in working on encoding and consolidating emotional memories.
The amygdala holds a significant key to understanding why people who have anxiety disorders, fear, and other mental health issues behave the way they do. It also helps us to understand stress.
Researchers use neuroimaging to study the amygdala and learn what it does. The amygdala seems to have a role in emotional processing and emotional regulation.
Studies show us that amygdala activity is more significant in people when they view pictures with emotional content rather than neutral content.
We also know that the amygdala seems to act differently in people who have both depression and anxiety disorders from imaging studies.
In depression, people have shown increased amygdala activity to adverse events and decreased activity to positive events.
Those who have the most panic and social anxiety disorder seem to have increased amygdala activation.
People who have PTSD show increased amygdala activation
For example, people with social anxiety disorders show more amygdala activity than others when they look at angry faces.
Abnormalities in the amygdala are related to increased anxiety and emotional deregulation. The amygdala’s stimulation can produce anxiety as well.
Anxious people seem to have greater sensitivity in their amygdala.
Amygdala and Fear
This may be because the amygdala plays a central role in fear.
In the 1930’s Heinrich Kluver and Paul Bucy removed the amygdalae of rhesus monkeys and noticed that the monkeys became more docile and seemed to display little fear. This study has since been replicated and built upon.
A more recent study showed that in a case of a woman with amygdala damage, she could not recognize fear in others’ facial expressions because she couldn’t recognize fear cues in others’ eyes.
Researchers learned from this study that the amygdala helps us by promoting our visual system to search for danger and then cue it up to other brain parts for evaluation.
Amygdala and Anxiety Disorders: The Amygdala Hijack
Daniel Goleman wrote the famous book Emotional Intelligence. He coined the term amygdala hijack, which refers to how our body is flooded with flight or fight reactions before mediating the reaction. The amygdala hijack is a survival response that has gone awry.
You’ve probably experienced this.
It’s a sudden and out-of-proportion emotional response that feels like it happened out of nowhere. It occurs without your conscious awareness because you feel threatened. Your brain actually bypasses processing a situation logically, going straight to the amygdala for quick fight/flight processing.
So what can you do to help yourself if you find that you have an overly sensitive amygdala?
Chronic stress can trigger more frequent sensitivity in the amygdala and more episodes of amygdala hijacks.
Oxytocin has been found to decrease amygdala reactivity.
Some studies show that you can increase oxytocin by doing activities such as
- Spending time with friends
- Petting Dogs
- Loving Kindness meditation
- Self Compassion
Affect Labeling has been shown to decrease emotional reactivity. We call this name it to tame it. When you notice you are in an amygdala hijack, step back and label what’s happening. Such as “I notice I am feeling out of control, experiencing anxiety and my heart is beating very fast.” That’s the beginning of shutting down the hijack and starting to get more control of your anxiety.
References for amygdala and anxiety disorders
- Bhagat, V., Simbak, N., Husain, R., & Mat, K. C. (2020). A brief literature review retraining amygdala to substitute its irrational conditioned fear and anxiety responses with new learning experiences. Research Journal of Pharmacy and Technology, 13(8), 3987. doi:10.5958/0974-360x.2020.00705.2
- Barrett L. F. (2018). Seeing Fear: It’s All in the Eyes?. Trends in neurosciences, 41 (9), 559–563. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tins.2018.06.009
- Miller MC. Questions and answers. What is the amygdala, and what are its functions? Harv Ment Health Lett. 2005 May;21(11):8. PMID:
- Peter Pressman, M. (2020, January 29). The strange history OF Kluver-Bucy Syndrome. Retrieved April 03, 2021, from https://www.verywellhealth.com/kluver-bucy-syndrome-2488644
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