The amygdala is a pair of tiny, almond-shaped parts of your brain that play an important role in your reactions to the world around you. This little area is an integral part of your emotions, fear response and motivation. As a result, the amygdala and mental health are deeply connected.
Knowing what the amygdala does and how it impacts mental wellness can offer a better understanding of the processes behind some mental health challenges. Read on to learn more about the important functions of the amygdala and how they can influence how you feel about the world.
Emotional Processing in the Brain: The Amygdala’s Key Functions
The amygdala’s primary function is to handle the emotional processing in the brain. It’s responsible for giving you the surge of motivation you need to finish that project before the deadline, and it provides your emotional response to internal or external stimuli. Due to the amygdala’s function in emotions, it determines whether you feel happy, sad, anxious or afraid.
The amygdala is also responsible for your instincts and immediate reactions to situations you encounter. When you feel your fight, flight or freeze response kick in, it’s the result of the amygdala perceiving a threat and taking action to keep you safe. That makes this part of the brain very sensitive to picking up on changes in your surroundings to ensure it always has the appropriate response for each moment.
Because the amygdala is responsible for regulating your emotions, it also manages the connections between these emotions and your other brain processes. This is especially true regarding your senses, memories and learning functions. The amygdala has such a strong connection to the way you feel and respond to things. Any dysfunction in this area of the brain can have a critical impact on your mood and ability to react to the world appropriately.
The Connection Between Amygdala and Mental Health
As the part of the brain that manages your fear response to the threats it detects, anxiety and the amygdala go hand in hand. Anxiety is meant to be used as a protective measure to deter you from dangerous situations and motivate you to remove yourself from the environment if it suddenly becomes unsafe. If you were to have your amygdala removed for some reason, you’d no longer experience any fear response.
If you’ve ever found yourself walking down the street at night and then suddenly had the urge to run to your destination, that’s the amygdala telling you there’s danger. This response can also be triggered by an emotional threat. Feeling panic when you want to call someone you’re romantically interested in is the amygdala’s attempt to protect you from what it perceives as emotional danger.
Unfortunately, the amygdala tends to stay on high alert to make sure it’s always there to look out for your well-being. As nice as it sounds to have a little brain almond watching your back every moment so it can make sure you know what to do in an emergency, sometimes this function stops working correctly. When this happens, you might find yourself suddenly panicking about things you logically know are perfectly safe.
Understanding the Broad Impact of Amygdala Function on Mental Health
Although the amygdala is very good at what it does to help you survive, it can sometimes take its job a little too seriously. When the amygdala becomes overstimulated, it might decide to send a fear response even if there’s no active threat. This can sometimes happen with sensory overload from your external environment, like loud music or too many people around. It can also be triggered by your own thoughts and memories.
Because your perception of things tends to affect how the amygdala measures a situation, overthinking a situation and convincing yourself it’ll end badly for you can fool your amygdala into thinking there’s danger. This can happen even if your belief defies logic or there’s no evidence to support your assumptions. This influence you have over the way the amygdala functions can significantly disrupt your brain’s understanding of a healthy anxiety response. This is so common, in fact, that the number of people affected by it worldwide in 2019 was calculated at 301 million.
For example, you’re invited to go to a function and some guy you had an awkward encounter with last week is going to be there. Logically, you know an awkward moment isn’t the end of the world, but you keep replaying the moment in your head. As you start to imagine what it will be like running into this person, you go through different scenarios in your head. The more you think about it, the more you don’t want to interact with this person at the event, and you wonder to yourself if you should just stay home.
Meanwhile, your amygdala has been listening and watching the whole time. You’ve developed a variety of negative possible outcomes, and that makes the amygdala start to grow suspicious of going to the event. You might feel butterflies in the pit of your stomach as the time to leave gets closer, but that’s your amygdala deciding to take matters into its own hands. The next thing you know, the thought of seeing this person at the function sends you into an irrational panic and you decide it’s better to stay home and instantly feel some relief! Now, the amygdala’s decision has been reinforced to associate this person with danger.
Now, every time you think you risk a similar encounter, you’ll feel the fear start to creep in. Every time you make a decision based on that fear, the amygdala pats itself on the back for saving you once again. This is the mental health impact of the amygdala. It has the power to influence how you feel, and a poorly regulated mood is often a recipe for a hit to your mental wellness.
If you find yourself experiencing anxiety in a way that disrupts your daily life, maybe you’re wondering if it’s a symptom of the amygdala and mental health connection. Sun Health Center is standing by with caring and supportive staff to help you navigate your anxiety. Contact us today to find out about the programs we offer and we can walk you through our available treatment options to help you take your life back.