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Are You Sensitizing Your Amygdala?

Last week I wrote about how possible it is for the brain to change after trauma. This week I want to share with you one of the ways you can do that. It’s all about creating positive experiences that last for long enough that your brain can record the experience through neural activity.

Whew, sounds like a lot of science and hard work, doesn’t it? Actually, it’s as easy as eating a ripe strawberry. Here’s what I mean…

How You Can Help Your Brain Change

According to neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, “the brain takes it’s shape from whatever it rests upon.” What he means is that brain structure constantly changes as a result of the information flowing through it. Indulge your negativity bias (focus on the bad things) and your brain’s activity and development will reinforce all of the feelings and neuronal structures that support that.

But, develop your positivity bias (your ability to be optimistic, for example) and you can develop a wholly different set of neural pathways that create a very healthy, whole and healing brain indeed.

The fact is, the brain makes structural changes according to how you use your mind. Take your amygdala, for example. An almond shaped mass deep within your brain, the amygdala is the seat of your survival emotions and response. Studies have proven that the amygdala can actually enlarge in people with PTSD. It’s almost as if it’s a muscle; the more you work it the bigger it gets.

However, studies have also proven that the amygdala can shrink back to it’s original size when PTSD reduces. Want to know how to help that happen? In PTSD your amygdala gets sensitized to pain, fear, anxiety, panic, terror, etc. Starting today, however, you can start sensitizing it to something else, say, joy, delight, happiness, contentment, gratitude, etc.

The major key to doing this? Creating experiences that allow your mind (hence, your amygdala) to have positive experiences and combining them with mindful awareness practices that allow you to hold onto the feeling that experience creates for at least 10-20 seconds. This way you can sensitize your brain and different parts of it to good things and desensitize your brain and its part to the bad. Doing this will literally change your brain.

The equation looks like this:

Positive experience + mindfulness = neuronal change

Effecting this equation can be as simple as:

1. Choose a food you really, really love.

2. Eat it slower than you ever have before and really be aware of how it tastes in your mouth, how it smells, how it feels sliding down your throat, how it rests in your stomach and makes your whole body feel.

3. Focus on that good feeling for a solid 10-20 seconds. For best results: do this over and over and over again.

That’s just one simple example. The truth is, whatever brings you pleasure can be used. For me dancing was a huge pleasure zone. So was cuddling up with my pup. It’s up to you to decide, discover, explore and find what makes you feel good, even if only for 10-20 seconds at a time.

This all sounds very simple and maybe even ridiculous, doesn’t it? Make healing progress while having fun eating? Yes, exactly. No one ever said PTSD recovery had to be a red hot mess all the time. It’s just that until then science never suggested that it could be so pleasurable either.

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10 Responses to Are You Sensitizing Your Amygdala?

  1. And, this takes a long time! For me it was 10 years of living basically in a bubble, eliminating as much as possible, all negative input, focusing on the positive world I created for myself. With the help of therapy and medication, I’ve gotten much better but it takes an incredibly long time.

    • @Grace — You’re so right, healing does take a long time. I fought against that idea for a while and then, when I gave into it, made progress much more quickly! So many ironies in PTSD recovery. If it weren’t for the information we have that let’s us hope for and believe in healing it would almost be too difficult to do the work.

  2. Ari Hahn says:

    Wonderful work here, Michele! ALthough I’ve seen research that childhood sexual abuse can shrink the amygdala, that is not necessarily a contradiction. Just that the brain is really complex. More important, as we know, is that building mindful positivity is really good, healthy, healthful and fun! (keep on dancing!)

    • @Ari – Great to see you here! I would expect there to be research that proves CSA shrinks the amygdala. 1) because we’re all so individual in our reactions to experience, while some people become more stressed others could have the opposite reaction, 2) in her book THE TRAUMA MYTH, Susan Clancy shares the findings of a study she did which revealed that the #1 response to CSA in children is a sense of confusion, not stress, shame or fear.

      Indeed the brain is complex, and so is the mind. Put them both together and it’s tough to predict the response to any experience. I’m so happy to know that we can, in fact, predict the brain’s ability to continually change!

  3. KGH2 says:

    Hi Michele -

    I’m wondering why treatment centers don’t use MRI, EEG or other similar brain activity scans to take patient benchmarks and baselines when they are admitted with a diagnosis of PTSD (or any other diagnosis for that matter). Wouldn’t that be able to pinpoint not only a correct diagnosis but the severity of the illness? I would think insurance coverage would be a factor, however there are many patients and family members who would be more than willing to pay out of pocket to have a solid starting point for treatment. Because of the nature of PTSD and disassociation, a full and complete accounting of indications and symptoms by the patient cannot be reliable at all times. In this sense, wouldn’t brain imaging and mapping be an absolute necessity before medication and treatment be introduced? Thanks so much!

  4. Laurel Fr. says:

    Hi Michele — I have been really loving your emails and posts — thank you.

    One perspective on this page — it’s a great idea, but I deal with clients with severe early (family) trauma — which often shows up connected to eating disorders…which mean, “no pleasure in eating.” Food is something to be endured or avoided.

    So this article’s helpfulness is not accessible to them. Might be helpful to reframe this excellent idea and re-present it with a less charged subject…like looking at the starts or sunset? or, yes, cuddling with a favorite animal or even stuffed animal?

    • @Laurel — Thanks for your kind words! And for sharing your insight. As a survivor who struggled with anorexia for over 20 years I guess I should have thought of that! I’ll definitely follow up on your idea when I have time to revise the post. Right now I’m on my next writing deadline for my forthcoming book, YOUR LIFE AFTER TRAUMA, so most writing time funnels there.

  5. Michael says:

    Dear Michelle and Tom,
    Today, I think I did what you discuss. I was at an event at work that brought up an array of uncomfortable emotions. I said to myself “I need to leave.” I left. (Big move since the president of the job was speaking.) When I got outside I said I need to replace my pain with something good or I’ll turn to my addiction. I saw a bag with a camera store on it so I went. There I had fun looking at the electronics talking to people etc. Tonight I found your article. So I did what you write about. I experienced a fun thing to make up for the pain I had just experienced.

    • @Michael — You ROCK! The process you describe is perfect. And look: you were able to remain present enough to pause, take a step back, assess what you needed/wanted, make a choice, take and action and follow through. Bravo!!!!!!!! The more you do that the more you will retrain your brain to turn on that process more quickly until eventually it might even just do it all in the space of a few seconds, allowing you to remain exactly where you are while your brain resets.

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