This week as I was preparing the writing for a week of our BrainFIX programs, I was struggling with my own brain, specifically my amygdala. As summer moves into full swing I am acutely aware that my daughter, and last little bird, will be heading off to college this fall. In addition, my son who ventured off to college two years ago and then took a gap year will also be heading to a new college in the fall.
We will drive and move him in one day and then the very next day drive her to her school to do the same. Fortunately, both colleges are within a day’s journey so that is possible. After getting my head around the logistics, my heart realized we were now one step closer to this big change.
An amygdala hijack
The amygdala is the part of the brain where fear originates. If you asked me if I am scared of my children, especially my daughter, going to college, it would be a resounding NO. I am not afraid for her safety, or if she is prepared for this new adventure. I am beyond amazed at the strong, smart, level-headed, confident, kind and magnificent young woman she is and know she is as prepared as any 18-year old can be.
But the amygdala is not just the seat of the surface fears. It is the activation site of those things that are underlying, like being afraid of how I will manage her departure. And my anticipation of missing her and feeling sad. Frankly, the thought of feeling sad scares me even more than actually feeling sad. What if the sadness NEVER stops?
Hmmm…and now that I am in this dark place, is she REALLY ready? Have I told her about asking the Uber driver for her name? And not walking home by herself across campus late at night? What if something does happen to her?
This is sometimes called an amygdala hijack. How did I get here? And so quickly?
The amygdala’s job is to keep trying to make sure that you (and everyone you love and care about!) are safe. Sometimes it goes overboard. The more time that train spends heading down that track of negative emotions and fear, the bigger and more activated the amygdala gets.
What possible chance do we have to stop this from happening?
For me, this amygdala hijack comes in waves that feel incredibly uncomfortable, and almost unbearable. My desire is to try and press them down, to do something to make that feeling stop; go shopping, eat a whoopie pie, or call a friend and get very dramatic.
When you sit at the beach watching the water you see the wave begin far from shore and gain strength and then crash and disappear. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. Thoughts and emotions have a life much like a wave. If you track a thought or emotion, you’ll discover there is a beginning, a middle and end. Trying to stop that first hint of an unpleasant emotion is as futile as standing at the beach and trying to stop a wave.
Yoga and mental wellbeing according to science
In the Science of Yoga, in the Question and Answers section, Ann Swanson delves into “The Brain and Mental Wellbeing”.
“New research shows that yoga changes how our brain’s work, for the better. Due to the neuroplasticity of our brains, these changes demonstrate the potential for yoga to become an efficient adjunct to our medical and psychological care.”
Sounds good, but what evidence is there to show that yoga really changes our brains? And how can it possibly help stop an amygdala hijack?
Brain scans reported in different research from 2018 demonstrated that practicing yoga poses and meditation reduced amygdala volume. Stanford University found that eight weeks of mindfulness enabled people to better reduce fear-related amygdala activity. This seems to work largely as a result of being mindful of sensations and emotions instead of pushing them down.
So my attempts were the opposite. I was trying to resist and distract myself. I remember the idea of the beginning, the middle and the end from my mindfulness training. We were trained to notice, not control. I cannot stop that first thought but I can notice it as an observer. And I can choose my reaction.
This what they call the gap in mindfulness. That moment to decide, can I allow this feeling? This is where something powerful can happen.
Instead of pushing back, can you allow and notice that even if the thought or emotion is unpleasant when it is allowed to flow through; there is a beginning, a middle and an end, just like a wave. The trouble is not in the thought, it is in forgetting that all things have a beginning, a middle an end. Staying with the breath allows things to naturally shift and dissipate. With this choice, the amygdala activity settles.
In my yoga practice or at CrossFit, a certain movement can trigger fear. It also feels like a wave and I know I have stumbled on a physical spot where my body has stored some past fear. By allowing the wave when this happens, the fear can dissipate. It has a beginning, a middle and an end when I do not interfere.
Mindfulness or yoga ?
The body is a system that we still know so little about, and yet as we learn more and more we see how well it all works. We train and compare it to a machine, yet it is so much more sophisticated than any machine. Our job is to keep finding ways to allow the brilliance of the body and mind to work.
And what a relief. Trying to control everything just wasn’t working out that well for me. These practices of mindfulness and yoga are not an attempt to never have fear or sadness but are the Swiss army knife of tools for how to flow with these thoughts and emotions when they arise. The tools of mindfulness and yoga are all tools that help us keep the amygdala in check.
Which practice might help you?
Let me know what works for you @ firstname.lastname@example.org.