Many of you are saying: “The Amygdala?” What the heck is that? This tiny part of the brain processes and conditions our responses to fear, addictions, sex drive, search for comfort, anger and many primitive responses that in primitive times kept us safe from harm. It is the part of the brain that has the power to inhibit the rest of the body systems so that you can accomplish the task at hand. Super important little part of the brain, huh? The following is a rough explanation of it’s function, how it becomes problematic, and how to outsmart it.
Good primitive response from the amygdala:
If you are walking down the street talking to your boss on the phone and someone pulls a gun on you. The amygdala influences the flight or flight response to drop the phone and run. Forget about the important conversation you are having and save yourself.
In this example, the amygdala is highly conditioned in that it has formed a neural pathway that links gun to arm and the reaction to run. Because it is such a powerful contributor to flight or flight or drastic responses and conditioning of them, it does not always use information from higher centers to weed out the abnormal processing. The amygdala is a key player in chronic pain and depression because of the repetitive nature of the neural pathways formed during both.
Once a nerve pathway is formed, the connection becomes conditioned (stronger) and may become strong enough to control all your daily thoughts and actions. The conditioned response creates a reaction similar to the reaction during potentially fearful or dangerous situations (even if they are not really dangerous) linking fear and pain to depressive mood.
Bad modern-day response from the amygdala:
If you have a car accident and experience a whiplash injury, the amygdala may overpower the other pathways in the brain convincing you that driving in the car is dangerous. You knew before the injury that there is risk involved with driving and were comfortable taking that risk prior to the accident, but now you are all together fearful of driving. If the whiplash injury was initially painful during movement, the amygdala invokes fear and communicates to the motor cortex that movement is dangerous. Prolonged fear of movement leads to chronic pain. This is an example when the amygdala can become problematic with modern-day coping mechanisms.
If the person above also is unable to work due to whiplash related back pain, the preservation on the loss of their paycheck and FEAR of going broke sends an impulse to the amygdala. The fear response inhibits the rest the systems and moods (hunger, happiness, immune system). The back pain intensifies each time they receive the notice to pay rent. The stress and depressed state intensifies the pain response because the pathway has become conditioned. Eventually the nerves that process pain become more sensitive to stimuli causing that reaction to require less stimulus to create the pain. Before you know it everything increases the depressive mood.
Exercise and Redirecting
The typical Physical Therapist solution is to recommend exercise to “cure” the depression and chronic pain. In the example above, Yes, exercise will help. Remember how I said that the stimulus telling your brain to experience pain sensitizes when the pathway is overstimulated or fear is involved. The best way to cure this is to redirect the conditioned nerve pathway. I am not telling you to ignore the pain, but to second guess your feared response to it. In other words, DO NOT TRUST YOUR AMYGDALA. Redirect the pathway and overcome the fear by with physical activity. Not only will it create a new neural pathway to help you realize that movement is not damaging, it will stimulate endorphin release (which is a mood enhancer) and activate many other positive benefits of physical activity.
The role of the amygdala has morphed in modern times as our society has become more civilized and less environmentally dangerous. Our motor processing (higher centers in our brain) needs to out smart it so that we can avoid abnormal pain processing and conditioning. Are you allowing a conditioned response to control your reactions or are you assessing each separate situation to make the most appropriate response? Begin getting control of your amygdala by becoming more aware of your responses to stressful situations. And exercise to re-direct your neural pathways and reactions that may be creating pain in your body.
The inspiration to write this blog was in part from reading Linchpin and after attending numerous presentations on pain mechanisms at APTA Combined Section Meeting last month . Information how the amygdala (or lizard brain) can affect fear with work and life situations is well explained in Linchpin, the new release by Seth Godin. In addition, there are many websites explaining the function of the amygdala.