What is my amygdala (and why should I care?) 

I always smile when I recall what one of our parents shared about her amygdala. Now she had a South African accent, so bear with my attempt to replicate that when I tell you what she said.  But with quite sincerity, she told everyone in the class:

When I learned that I kept triggering this little almond shaped part of my brain, well I thought, “I’m just not going to allow that any more. I don’t want all that anxiety and stress.”

And then she proceeded to tell us, for the first time in her life, she had flown across the Atlantic Ocean and had not felt any angst whatsoever.

But she did not just “will” that to happen. We need an organized brain to be able to calm our amygdala. Otherwise, our amygdala might be triggered like five, ten, twenty times a day.  

That’s because the amygdala’s job is to constantly be scanning, scanning, scanning the environment, always on the look-out for any possible threat.  And then, as soon as the amygdala registers something as “DANGER”, it sets off a complete fight-or-flight stress response throughout the entire body.

Now, this brain function serves us very well if there truly is a threat. For example, it’s great to have an immediate fight-or-flight response if a saber-toothed tiger suddenly jumps in front of us, right?

But in our modern world, how many of us encounter any kind of tiger during our day? Yet, here’s the problem. Our brain can’t distinguish between a real and an imagined threat.  

So, it’s possible that our amygdala gets triggered as soon as we wake up and realize we overslept, and then again when we spill coffee on our blouse, and then again when our spouse asks us to iron his pants—apparently not noticing that we are already late—and then again when we hit every red light on the way to work, and then again when we finally arrive at work, only to be told that our boss wants to see us in her office right away. So, it’s not even 9:00 a.m.—and our amygdala has been triggered five times. Geez.

Worst of all, if we’re living with a trigger-happy amygdala, where our brain acts as though we’re in a constant state of survival, we end up experiencing many long-term adverse effects. That’s because such chronic stress takes a heavy toll on our brain and body.

Now, while we may not be able to change what often seems like a crazy, tense world, we can learn how to calm our own amygdala. And then, that way, we actually stay in our cortex, even when faced with stressful situations.  

So, yes, we need to know about this part of the brain—and even better—we can learn how to keep our amygdala from working overtime.