Amygdala hijacking and the stress response - how practicing mindfulness can help

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates a variety of body processes that take place without conscious effort. The autonomic system is the part of the peripheral nervous system that is responsible for regulating involuntary body functions, such as heartbeat, blood flow, breathing, and digestion. All these body functions if not regulated or performed normally can cause illnesses and diseases.

In humans, we have glands that control the Autonomic Nervous System which reside in the brain. They are namely the amygdala, the hypothalamus, and the pituitary along with the adrenal glands which are atop the kidneys - these glands all operate together.

The amygdalae, a pair of small almond-shaped regions in the limbic system is best known for detecting fear and threats, thus triggering the fight or flight stress response in our nervous system. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score, calls this the brain’s “smoke detector.” It’s responsible for detecting fear and preparing our body for an emergency response.

When humans perceive a threat (either physical like running away from a someone charging at you with a knife, or worrying about paying the next mortgage bill), the amygdala is switched on to trigger the release of chemicals and stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to flood our physiological system, preparing us to flee or fight? When this well developed instinctive function takes over, we call it what Daniel Goleman coined in Emotional Intelligence as “amygdala hijack.”

When I learned that we have 48 hours to prepare for a whole nation lock down due to Covid-19, I felt my flight or fight response kicked in, my heart started beating faster, my breathing becomes shallow and rapid as I took in more oxygen, I even felt mildly tingly as blood begins to move away from my major organs and towards my arms and legs. I noticed that I was feeling a sense of panic even though physically I was safe (I was at home). I was experiencing an “amygdala hijack” and this was where my mindfulness practice came into play. Once I was able to pause and breathe to reassess the situation, I started to calm down.

Interestingly, the amygdala besides being best known for regulating fear and pleasure, is also responsible for the creation and storing of memories and emotions,the sights, the smells, the sounds, the feelings and the associated emotions of significant events. This is crucial to the evolutionary development of the human species as we learn from experiences to help us survive and thrive.

For example, If you were bitten by a dog, and caused you physical pain, the amygdala is responsible for storing that experience of fear and pain as a memory. So whenever you see a dog afterwards, you may immediately feel anxious or wary, as you are reminded of the previous attack.

Have you noticed how, when we smell the ocean air, it seems to induce a sense of calm perhaps reminding us of the previous beach holiday when life was slower and relaxed; and how we smell something foul, like the rubbish that makes you flinch and want to run away from the smell. This is because the olfactory nerve travels directly from the nose to the amygdala; our sense of smell is a basic survival instinct and can elicit a pleasant memory like the smell of a flower or an unpleasant memory associated from a painful or undesirable experience.

In summary, our stress response can be triggered by smells and memories stored in the amygdala in our brain which functionally was to help us to be aware of threats and predators to stay alive. Even though in today’s world, we may not experience physical threats from animal predators, this same principle still applies to modern day threats like worry and fear from health issues, unemployment or providing for the family etc.

If you are wondering how to counteract the “amygdala hijack” especially during conflict when we may react to the situation in a way that we may regret afterwards, the practice of mindfulness which over time can help us to make a better choice on how to respond during difficult times. The mindfulness practice trains us to be present with all the feelings, sensations and emotions that may be flooding our nervous system when the amygdala is activated in a stressful situation. Mindfulness teaches us to let go of the story or judgement in our minds, - perhaps the most difficult thing to do when we feel threatened or challenged. Instead to focus on our bodies and breathe when we feel triggered, to interject the automatic response of fight or flight that was initially designed to help us run from a dangerous situation. Mindfulness can help us to find calm and make better choices.