Is That a Lion or am I Just Late for Work?

I want to introduce you to a little brain structure called the Amygdala.

The amygdala’s entire purpose is to keep you alive – it’s like a little guard, located in the limbic system (your emotion centre), constantly looking for signs of trouble. It does that by taking in all kinds of information and then assessing that information for signs of danger. When it finds potential danger it kicks into gear a whole set of things to help keep the host (you) alive.

  • It slows or shuts down the digestive system in order to have more available energy for your limbs in case you need to run away fast or even physically fight a predator
  • It narrows vision and hearing so you can focus on the immediate threat and ignore everything else
  • It sends stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol coursing through the body so you can more efficiently use energy and repair injuries in case you’re hurt
  • It more effectively stores memories for dangerous situations so you can keep yourself safer in future situations.

But it also:

  • Causes digestive problems
  • Does not allow in other information that might refute the dangerous signs
  • Increases blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration
  • Reduces the ability of the brain to store memories of non-dangerous experiences

But, here’s the problem: The amygdala doesn’t differentiate between the impending threat of that giant lion over there who has just caught your scent on the wind, or you’re going to be late for work because your son refused to eat his breakfast, AND wouldn’t get his mittens on (I’m not talking about any of my children specifically, honest I’m not, “no William, that’s not about you at all!”.

The brain sends the same chemicals regardless of the specific “danger”. So, while this system is wonderful, amazing, life-saving, and something to be in awe of, it’s a whole different ballgame when we are constantly exposed to non-life threatening stress in our daily lives. When the amygdala gets too much use (constant stress), it becomes hyper-aroused – it thinks ANYTHING is potentially dangerous.

Now you have Anxiety.

And then you get anxiety about having anxiety – it’s a whole ‘thing’.

BUT, there are ways to dial back the amygdala, without turning it off completely (what if there IS a lion looking at you and licking its chops?).

That’s where I come in. Therapy is a really useful plan for learning how to cope with anxiety so that next time, when you’re just late for work, your amygdala doesn’t think there’s a lion!