What is an Amygdala and How is it Directly Involved in Anxiety Disorders?

An important part of your brain that plays a key role in anxiety disorders is the amygdala. It is an almond-shaped pair of organs that plays the key role in whether you interpret a situation to be “safe” or “dangerous.” It is part of your limbic system and it is responsible for controlling anxiety, fear, and panic. Researchers have found that when it is over-stimulated it can lead to development of panic disorders and other types of anxiety. This is because it has important roles in the formation and storage of memories associated with emotions…including anxiety disorders . Most treatment for anxiety disorders is aimed at this area of the brain…both medications and psychological therapy tend to act on this brain area.

Your Limbic System

All the structures in your brain that are involved in motivation, emotion, and emotional association with memory are part of your limbic system. The limbic system also consists of the hippocampus and a few other minor parts of the brain.

These structures get sensory input from the outside world from your senses (sight, sound, hearing, taste, smell, feeling, etc.) and when your limbic system takes them in, it causes you to have an emotional experience.

Normally, when you are threatened, your amygdala will relay this message to your cerebral cortex – the thinking part of your brain. Your cortex quickly evaluates the information and makes a decision about how to handle it.

Once you take care of the information and have acted on it, your brain resets itself to “normal.” If you have experienced prolonged periods of stress and anxiety, you’ve probably developed a very sensitive amygdala.

What this means is that your cerebral cortex will play a much smaller part in making the decision to shut off your fear or anxiety response. This results in you being in a constant state of anxiety or stress because your amygdala continues to be set at a higher than normal level. The new normal for you is a state of constant anxiety or stress.

How It Works

This entire fear-response cycle is basically one of our built-in survival mechanisms because it prompts us to escape first and ask questions later.

It works like this…information that arrives in your brain from your senses gets processed both emotionally and cognitively. This is called cognitive and emotional processing...the cognitive part is simply your conscious thoughts about your experience...the emotional part is when you're alerted to events that are important. These are all unconscious reactions.

The amygdala serves a key function in processing information on the emotional level. If you happen to experience something that’s not pleasant or that frightens you, it creates a memory of the situation. If you experience the frightening situation again, your body creates an instant fear response which will cause you to have anxiety and trigger the fight or flight response .

Luckily for us, all these reactions happen very fast at an unconscious level. Our bodies and minds are designed to allow us to react quickly to danger without having to consciously think about what is happening.

What’s not so lucky for us is that situations and objects that do not pose any threat to us can become associated with danger and trigger a fear response when we experience them.

Our unconscious interpretations of simple everyday situations as dangerous plays a big role in the creation of anxiety disorders. The process that happens is called fear conditioning and it can lead to anxiety disorders like:

What all this means is that anxiety disorders are directly related to fear conditioning. And the process can work in reverse and be undone using behavior modification techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy which addresses the key issues underlying anxiety disorders and not just the symptoms.

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