Amy Dann Psychotherapy

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Anxiety & the Amygdala - a story for children (and adults..)

Posted on 26 June, 2018 at 5:25 Comments comments (0)

This is a story about anxiety....  Anxiety is something that affects lots of people, but it feels different for everyone.  It is common among children, and lots of adults get it too.  It happens because there is a part of your brain that thinks there is something it needs to protect you from.  That part of your brain is called the amygdala.  It is not very big, and shaped a bit like an almond.


The amygdala is the security guard of your brain, and its job is to get you ready for action when it thinks you are in danger.  It does this by filling your body full of energy ready either to run away, or to fight.  We call this the fight/flight response.


The amygdala is a doer, not a thinker.  It doesn't stop to think about whether the danger is real or not, it just takes action.  Imagine the incredible Hulk, smashing his way through everything without thinking!  This is extremely useful if there is something you need to run away from, like an enormous dinosaur!  Sometimes though, the amygdala fuels you up ready for action when there isn't any danger there.


Have you ever burnt the toast a bit in the toaster and set the smoke alarm off?  The smoke alarm can't tell the difference between smoke from a fire and smoke from a bit of burnt toast - it doesn't care.  Its only job is to warn you so that you can get the heck out of there.  


The amygdala works the same way - it can't tell the difference between something that might hurt you, like a gigantic dinosaur, and something that won't, like doing a test, or your first day at a new school.


If you don't need to run away or fight, there is nothing to burn all that extra energy filling your body, and it starts to build up.  That is why you feel the way you do when you have anxiety.


So when your amygdala senses danger it floods your bloodstream with adrenaline, a natural chemical that speeds up your body's processes and gives your muscles extra energy.  When this happens you might feel:


  • Shaking - encourages blood to reach your arms, legs, hands and feet - also the result of excess energy in your body
  • Pounding heart - adrenaline quickens your heartbeat so extra blood can be pumped to power the body
  • Flushing - spare blood not used by your muscles might show up as redness and a feeling of heat in your face, neck, chest and arms
  • Faster breathing - as your heart beats faster, your lungs have to work faster to make sure your blood is getting enough oxygen
  • Aching chest - when your heart and lungs are working harder this can cause an achey feeling in your chest and you might feel a bit sick, or like you have butterflies in your tummy

All this can happen before you even have time to think about feeling scared or anxious.  Remember, the amygdala's job is to get your body ready fast when it thinks you need to fight or flee.  The thing is, we don't share our world with huge dinosaurs any more - we don't even have to run from wild animals like lions most days (hopefully)!  So a lot of the time, there isn't anything to run away from, but the amygdala doesn't know that, and it thinks it's in charge.


But we know that really we are the ones in charge.  The most powerful thing you can do to put yourself back in control when anxiety has tried to take over is to slow down your breathing.  This is your superpower against anxiety!  


Breathe in deeply, right down into your stomach - you should see your belly puff out.  Hold your breath for just a second before breathing out completely.  Make the out-breath slightly longer than the in-breath.  (x 5 or 10)


Do this 5 or 10 times, counting the number of times as you do it - this will also help to distract you from the anxiety.  Pactise this before bed every day.  Your amygdala has been protecting you for a long time, so it might take a lot of practice to remind it that it works for you, and that you are in charge.  Keep practising, and one day you and your amygdala will be a fantastic team!





With thanks to Ken, as always!

Stress

Posted on 18 May, 2018 at 8:55 Comments comments (0)

What is stress? One way of looking at it is as the effect produced by any kind of change. But life is always changing, right? What is that saying – “the only constant in life is change”? In fact, we need a certain amount of change to keep us sane, because also, sometimes, “a change is as good as a rest”.


OK, so the right amount of change is important, because it keeps us alive, stimulated and motivated. Too little and we become bored and our lives seem to lack purpose. But every time we encounter change, our mental map of the world gets redrawn. Sometimes it gets redrawn only temporarily, like when a colleague is off sick and we have to cover their workload for a while, but at other times the redrawing can be more permanent, as it is, for example, when we change job, move house, or lose a loved-one. When we are under pressure or life is very busy it can feel like we are having to make too many alterations to our map all at once, and we can end up feeling stressed – tired, angry, anxious, unwell.


So what can we do to take care of ourselves at these times?


First of all we need to feel we have support, someone to turn to who will listen and try to understand and, if necessary, take the reins for a while so that we can rest and recuperate. This may be a professional, such as a counsellor, who can shoulder some of our emotional burden and help us explore any underlying issues, or it might be a friend or family member, who can help in a more practical way by taking over responsibility for something until the pressure we feel under subsides – a grandparent picking up the kids from school, for example, or a partner taking over the housework for a week.


Rest is also vital. When we are stressed we dream more and so get less of the restorative deep sleep we need. We go to bed tired and strung out, and wake up tired and groggy rather than refreshed and ready to face a new day. When we are rushed off our feet or under a lot of pressure, allowing ourselves time to decompress before we go to bed can improve the quality of our sleep. We can do this by going for a walk, sitting quietly, meditating, taking a bath...anything that restores calm and allows the fight/flight response to deactivate. Decompression is best done away from technology, as TV, social media etc will only increase stimulation. Playing or listening to music is good, but “conscious repose” is ideal. Be aware of the desire to comfort eat when stressed, and beware inertia too – I don’t know about you, but I find that the more I do, the more I want to do (just like the less I do, the less I want to do). During a hectic week recently, I found myself adding more pressure by deciding to swap round two of the rooms in my house. I got as far as measuring up to see if the furniture would fit before I realised what was happening. My “distraction” defence mechanism was activated, and my mind had found me a pleasant project with which to avoid the other less appealing jobs on my plate, but if I had gone ahead, all I would have done was pile on more pressure by adding to my To Do list, and increase the likelihood of my not finishing anything. This would undoubtedly have left me feeling more stressed. Definitely one mental map change too far!


When our mental map of the world is changing fast, routine can anchor us in the familiar and help guard against emotional overload; taking meals at regular intervals and finishing work on time, avoiding the temptation to work longer to try and achieve more – literally, enough...is Enough! Busyness is not a virtue. Going to bed and getting up at the same time each day, and allowing ourselves time off all count against the effects of stress too, so have that cheat day, and stick to date night or movie night if that’s what you normally do, even (especially) when it might feel like obligations are getting in the way.


So change can add interest to our lives, but too much can leave us reeling. Change can feel good, and at other times it can feel bad. But difficult changes can be beneficial, because we need a certain level of frustration in life to help us define and maintain our boundaries. In other words, we find out what is important to us and where our limits are – what we will stand for and what we won’t – when we encounter frustration. When we’re born we don’t have any awareness that we are separate, distinct from the rest of the world, and it is only through the natural frustration of our needs (a feed not arriving precisely on cue, for example), that we begin to experience ourselves as separate. So in a very literal way, early-life frustration teaches us where our edges are, first our physical ones, then later our mental and emotional ones. This process continues throughout life, and if we can learn to meet frustration with self-awareness and self-reflection, we can use it to better understand ourselves and live by our values, building an ever stronger and clearer sense of who we are.


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