Taming Amygdala

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition characterized by excessively reactive defensive brain survival circuits. In addition, there are noticeable reductions in the thought promoting, emotional regulating centers. The amygdala is a key component of the brain survival circuits. It is made up of input and output pathways, including one to complex thinking which is a filter system for our emotions and impulses. The interface of thinking systems to emotions helps to tamp up or down reactivity. The stress response system is fast and strong; at times, it may bypass the cognitive filter. If this system is primed by trauma, as in the case of PTSD, reflective control over impulse, decision making, and managing negative emotions, especially anxiety and anger, can be more difficult. Understanding the interaction of the reactive and reflective systems has profound implications for a peaceful, contemplative humanity.

The amygdala is a many faceted cluster of neurons located deep within our brain. It is a key defensive circuit, forging brain pathways whose function is to guard safety and reward, which promotes survival. With imaging techniques, we are beginning to map its components and connectivity. Many of the outgoing amygdala pathways cause vigilance and defensive arousal. This center is deeply embedded with perceptual (auditory, visual, and scent) connections. It is fascinating that one of the outgoing amygdala pathways leads to complex thinking, which is accessible if brain arousal is not excessively high. This is a key connection that gives us the opportunity for thoughtful guidance of emotional reactivity. With enough safe time, this small, but very significant path, can be entrained with regular use. Today’s world is very different than the one our ancestor foragers inhabited. Civilization has given many humans safe environments with the benefits of education, which adds to the complexity of neuron connections and thus expanded abilities for complex thinking. Such advantages yield well-developed cognitive centers that enhance the potential to filter stress reactive emotional states. Here is a sketch of how the Amygdala operates and its interface to the survival/defensive circuit.


Does something spark a threat refrain?
The amygdala alarm system quickly comes on board.

It is a lane to survival.
It can promote thought-
Or be a rival.

One part receives the menacing signal.
Another sends out to alert chemistry.
Finally, there is a path to give complex thinking a jingle.
And with that the power of thought is brought to bear on this three-part telemetry.

Can we slow the response to aggression?
Can we think through unrealistic fear?
Are we able to tame self-seeking with altruistic self-possession?

Can we map the pathways enough to calmly marshal reactive internment?
If not, the cost to ourselves and mankind may turn out to be dear.
Human survival seems increasingly akin to kindly discernment.

Tracing amygdala circuits can help to forge a tempering path.
There is a slower tract taking conscious effort, quieting, and a bit more time.
It is that trail that may avoid the devastation of earthly wrath.
Practice, healthy self-quieting, and self-disciplined thinking teach us to make a harder, better climb.

What Happens to My Survival Defense Circuit in PTSD?

There is a stress hormone dialogue between brain and body that affects how we react, how we feel, and how we think. Once the defensive survival center perceives a threat, several systems, including the amygdala, interface to prime our bodies for response. Stress hormones are summoned to play a critical role in reactivity and safety. When we encounter significant threat our bodies are wired for quick response. Subsequent associations with the traumatic event may also spark arousal. For instance, should a yellow tiger kill a mother bear’s cub, it is likely that bear will be hyper-reactive, aggressive, and fearfully responsive to any animal with similar markings-a small striped cat perhaps. Extrapolate from this how PTSD survivors may be triggered into alarm and react inappropriately to a contemporary situation without cognitive vetting. With repeated trauma-memory reliving, the amygdala pathways to rapid defense reactivity around related associations become deeply etched.

Our stress chemistry, primarily cortisol, may also be modified following tragedy. In fact, trauma related changes may stretch out for a lifetime and even be passed on to the next generation. People with depression and other emotional disorders tend to have high cortisol levels. But, surprisingly, many of those with PTSD often have low cortisol, as does the second-generation children of trauma survivors. Chronically low-stress hormones may leave survivors under-reactive to threat and danger. For instance, there is some research indicating that rape victims may have an increased risk of repeated rape because of low-stress reactivity and a loss of vigilance for danger signals. The body, and the brain do not tolerate the toxicity of elevated stress hormones over a long period. Chronic elevation of stress neurohormones are detrimental to a key part to the brain’s memory system. It is thought that following life changing trauma, the brain, and the DNA down regulate cortisol levels, meaning they absorb less. After trauma, people often feel that the experience is so overwhelming that it has forced a biochemical and self-experienced transformation. Most do not know that their genes and biochemistry are part of the underpinnings of that perception.

Tragedy changes neurohormones and the defense survival circuits which now may fire more quickly and intensely to adapt to the possibility of repeated threat. Thus, tragic life experience may recalibrate biological systems that continue to impact the survivor and future generations. A legacy of trauma can also have a learned component. This may be the case in situations where children are growing up with family or in a culture where people exhibit vigilance and fear and are quick to react with negative emotions such as aggression. How much cultural hate is based on a history of past related trauma with an outsider group?

There are two primary ways that tragedy genetically impacts the next generation. One is epigenetic. That is, there is evidence that an overwhelming experience puts a marker on the gene that modifies its expression-for instance increasing vigilance and survival stress reactivity. In addition, genes may be modified with respect to which ones are turned on and how they express themselves. Epigenetic gene environment interaction adjusts our range of biological and behavioral responses to help us expand our ability to cope with life experience. It is a dance between the physiological self and how we feel and behave. Obviously, those who are quickly reactive have a harder time keeping their emotional feet on the ground. Remember, when we are emotionally aroused our ability to think through a situation is reduced. Complex assessment takes a lot of energy. If the brain and body are agitated, the energy necessary for careful consideration is just not readily available. Routine habits of healthy self-quieting play a role in everyone’s ability to live reflectively; this is especially the case for someone with PTSD.

Managing Your Own History and Chemistry Well

Once a situational crisis has passed, the circuit to more reflective thought may be activated. In a restored quieted state, the trauma survivor has the potential to make a conscious and deliberate plan as to how to manage trauma-related sensitivities. Intentionally managing suffering, stress, and negative emotion is a crucial factor in who we are as humans. The question becomes one of how the experience is regularly handled going forward. Finding a path cannot be done alone. Support is needed. It is interesting that epigenetic changes can also occur in psychotherapy. Healing, like trauma, can be transmitted. How we behave toward one another affects our biology. Feeling understood with compassion is healing and an important part of human connection. Trauma therapy entails moving away for the emotional hijack of PTSD. Provocations of vivid traumatic related memory occurrences may be paired with soothing images and meditative passing.

Even unspeakable suffering may have the possibility for resilience, and wisdom. Expanded self-understanding can lead to more deliberative guidance of biological intensity and quick upset. There is research indicating that many corporate leaders have had some past traumatic experience that was successfully negotiated. It is thought that navigating a difficult past may add the possibility of a personal sense of competency and empathy. This is certainly fitting to one of today’s business community conceptions of the “servant leader.”

Going Forward With Wisdom and a Force for Good

Some religions memorialize trauma as a way of containing the crushing experience. The rituals of remembering, religious or not, are often dissected in time. Frequently, grief is circumscribed in discreet rituals in a set period, for example often reoccurring yearly on anniversary dates. Carefully bringing past trauma into present life in some form of transparent, structured remembering and open acknowledgment of related sensitivities is part of resilient survival. Moving forward with life in a way that neither denies past tragedy nor relives it, takes courage and persistent effort. Avoidance ensures that the more reactive and intensified emotions that are inevitably triggered from time to time with be acted on in some way or another. Secrets take on a power of their own. Holocaust survivors did not speak for many years. Initially, most were focused on putting tragedy behind them and moving on with new lives. Over time, it was realized that open acknowledgment of the lost lives and family suffering needed to be spoken. South African truth and reconciliation hearings are another example of people finding a way to create peaceful future lives by openly confronting the truth of what happened to them. Healing respectfully remembers past tragedy and lost loved ones but heroically moves forward in a quest to find meaning and goodness beyond unchosen suffering.

- Dr. Linda Klaitz, Medical Psychologist