Anxiety and Your Amygdala

I recently posted an entry about a new study taking place at Rutgers University. The post describes how researchers have found the small cluster of cells inside the brains amygdala that directly controls fear and anxiety. As a result of writing about that I wanted to evaluate the amygdala itself.

When you have a first response of fear and anxiety it is instantaneous. You go from normal to very afraid in what seems like nanoseconds. What is going on in the brain when this happens? What fires the emotional trigger that sets you on a course with panic or nervous tension? The simple answer is the amygdala.

This small almond shaped organ rest inside your brains medial temporal lobes. It is part of the limbic system and it’s primary function in life is to regulate emotion and memory. It is also very instrumental in our bodies fear reaction or what is normally referred to as the fight of flight response.

The fact that the amygdala not only houses the fear fuel, but also stores our memories is critical to you and me. Now at first glance this might not matter to you, but if you think about it this is actually very important. Your fear factory and memory factory are all housed under the same roof. So it would be fair to say that our memories and our ability to become frightened are intrinsically linked to one another. This has implications for anxiety sufferers because essentially this combination of fear and memory is what ultimately allows us to become ‘fear conditioned’. We have developed a memory of fear that is deep seeded (see the location of the amygdala in the video) and grows as our memories feed the beast as it were.

This gets even better. Psychologist like Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990) believed that people could imprint their mind with fear and that this would subsequently overstimulate the amygdala which overtime can create a habit of fear. In other words, say you had a traumatic or scary experience (panic attacks qualify) and you then store that memory. It then follows that you develop a fear of that event happening again and ironically enough if it happens again you become even more afraid. You become scared, remember the fear, feel fearful of the fear and in essence relive the sensations of fear. Setup, rinse and repeat and overtime you can develop an anxiety disorder like, OCD, social phobia, etc.

Please forgive me for the oversimplification, but I just wanted to illustrate where our fear and overreaction to those fears comes from. The truth is more complex, since things like family history (genes), brain chemistry, and environment all play a combined and rather complex role in producing an anxiety disorder.

What does this all mean? So if after reading this if you were thinking that it all sounded like whaw, whaw, whaw, whaw then read this next sentence closely. All this ultimately means that anxiety disorders are largely related to fear conditioning and as a result can be undone. You have probably heard this before but maybe not in this context. To undo the anxiety replay you can use behavior modification techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, to address the core issue and not just the symptoms.

Drugs for example are used to address anxiety disorders and can be somewhat effective, but I think this is only a temporary fix. Treatments such as CBT can deal with the root and not just the surface material. Say you popped a pill and the palpitations have slowed, but you’re still scared and the anxiety still remains. In the end we have to deal with the subconscious fear connections and not the fact that our heads get numb every now and then. Also keep in mind that any “cure” of course takes time to become effective because it takes time to heal any wound.

I just wanted to convey to you that this is not happening at random and you are not defective or crazy. Our issues are rooted in emotional and physiological problems that need to be understood as such. We should refrain from thinking that we did something to deserve this or that it cannot be made better. Remember that this all starts with acceptance of our condition and the scary symptoms, letting go, patience, a healthy diet, excercise and education. Once you incorporate these into your life you will start to see a change for the better. You may still have anxiety for some time, but have hope. After 9 years of having an anxiety disorder I cannot say that I am cured, but I get better all the time. Sometimes I have set backs, and you will too, but you should remain steadfast in your journey toward recovery. We can overcome our anxiety disorders.

The New Handbook of Cognitive Therapy Techniques


  1. says

    I read this with interest. There is a lot of interest in Baclofen because it is a synthetic Gaba B analogue and works to calm anxiety and addictive craving.

    It seems that a lot of what is called mental illness is actually a neurological disorder and treatable already.

  2. Shane says

    Hello, very nice website. I have had to deal with a panic attack that started on 2004-present? Usually, a panic attack lasts so many minutes but one day back in 2004 I had one and it never turned off. The panic just got worst and has not stopped. I have gone through Hell on earth but I am alive. I have taken all the pills and one worked. The one that worked (Thank You Lord ) was Celexa but it stopped 2 years later. Then, I was Blessed Miraculously by morphine which has lasted more than 2 years and I am still alive. I know you are probably thinking how does he know it is still there well I have tested it. Well, I just want to get well if you can help. I know I am a severe case. None of the Doctors have ever heard of it. Thanks Shane


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