Winter is here. We are exhausted from social isolation. We face more uncertainty while we wait for the vaccine. Many of us fall somewhere on the mental health spectrum between anxiety and depression because our brain’s panic button has been working overtime.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure in the emotional brain that evaluates threats and ignites the fight-or-flight stress response. The stress response elevates heart rate and blood pressure, and also suppresses our immune and digestive systems. The rest-and-digest system restores our equilibrium and soothes the amygdala. Much of what we have learned about the amygdala is through extensive research on mice and rats, since so many parallel discoveries have been made between the human and the rodent brain. We owe these creatures our gratitude for helping us better understand our stress ignition switch.
A longitudinal study in England, with 28,000 adult participants, examines mental health during adulthood. In cohorts born in both 1958 and 1970, mental health decline began in participant’s mid-30s and they experienced their highest rates of psychological distress between ages 46-53. In both cohorts, women experienced higher rates of mental health problems than men.
People with anxiety often experience hyperarousal in response to negative events and people with depression often experience a failure of arousal response to positive events. Recent neurocircuit research in mice has found the area within the amygdala that drives arousal responses. These brain cells involve the expression of GABA, the neurotransmitter of calm. Research like this can be used to develop medications for mental health disorders, but there are some non-medical practices that can help.
We can become an amygdala whisperer with:
- Mindfulness: focusing on the present where you have control, rather than worrying about the future or regretting the past;
- Meditation: focusing on long slow breaths, and when the mind wanders, gently notice it and return your focus to your breath;
- Gratitude: taking time each day to reflect on things you are grateful for;
- Lovingkindness Contemplation: wishing yourself healthy, happy, safe, and at ease, and then extending those wishes to loved ones and to others; and
- Yoga, which has the capacity to increase GABA, the calming neurotransmitter.
Takeaway: Pandemic stress impacts all of us. To quite your overtaxed amygdala, consider free online yoga classes at Do Yoga with Me (https://www.doyogawithme.com/) or meditations apps such as Calm, Headspace, or Insight Timer.
Debra S. Austin, Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die from Law School Stress and How Neural Self-Hacking can Optimize Cognitive Performance, 59 Loy. L. Rev. 791, 815-821, 823, 837-847 (2013), online at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2227155. Mental strength practices are detailed at 837-847.
Debra S. Austin, Windmills of Your Mind: Understanding the Neurobiology of Emotion, 54 Wake Forest L. Rev. 931, 965-972 (2019), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3374006. Windmills offers 10 practices that can enhance your mental strength, pages 965-972.
John J. Ratey, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain 62 (2008). Ratey described the amygdala as the brain’s “panic button”.
Jose Rodriguez-Romaguera et al., Prepronociceptin-Expressing Neurons in the Extended Amygdala Encode and Promote Rapid Arousal Responses to Motivationally Salient Stimuli, Vol. 33, Issue 6 Cell Reports 108362, Nov. 10, 2020, https://www.cell.com/cell-reports/fulltext/S2211-1247(20)31351-6?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS2211124720313516%3Fshowall%3Dtrue. This research identified the brain cells in an area of the amygdala where arousal responses are activated or calmed, the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST).
Dawid Gondek et al., Psychological Distress from Early Adulthood to Early Old Age: Evidence from the 1946, 1968 and 1970 British Birth Cohorts, Psychological Medicine 1-10, Jan, 21, 2021, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/psychological-medicine/article/psychological-distress-from-early-adulthood-to-early-old-age-evidence-from-the-1946-1958-and-1970-british-birth-cohorts/1EBDDD9D82389023128700146CED6C8F.
Taylor Clark, Nerve: Poise under Pressure, Serenity under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool 81 (2011). Clark described the endeavors to enhance the brain’s rest-and-digest system to offset its fight-or-flight response as becoming an “amygdala whisperer”.