Have you ever wondered why you jump when you’re startled? Maybe you wonder why you have a harder time handling stress and anxiety than your friends and family do. Part of the reason might lie in your brain.
Fear and stress are closely associated with a tiny, almond-shaped part of your brain: the amygdala. Learn more about how the amygdala influences your emotions and plays an important part in the decisions you make every day.
What Is the Amygdala?
The amygdala is the part of the brain that’s most closely associated with fear, emotions, and motivation. Its name means “almond” because it is almond-shaped.
If you see something that frightens you, your amygdala might tell your body to panic. This can be good if you truly need to panic — but this response isn't as helpful if you’re panicking in a situation that won’t harm you (like public speaking).
What Does the Amygdala Do?
Like many other structures found in the brain and body, the amygdala has many jobs. It also works with other parts of the brain to process complex emotions.
Part of the limbic system. The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system. The limbic system consists of different parts of the brain: The hippocampus, which stores memories, and the amygdala, which processes fear, are the major players.
When you’re stressed or emotional, your limbic system is working overtime to help your body process your feelings. Because emotion and memory are so highly connected within the human brain, the limbic system also plays a part in memory, learning, and sexual arousal.
Involved in key behaviors. Though this almond-shaped structure is tiny compared to the rest of your body, it helps you make big decisions and influences important behaviors. It’s linked to parts of your brain that control your thoughts — but it’s also connected to the more primitive, “fight-or-flight” stress response.
The amygdala determines how we act in a crisis depending on the information it receives. This means that if your amygdala is overstimulated, your anxiety will outweigh the logical parts of your brain and cause you to panic.
Recognize and process emotions. The amygdala, along with the rest of the limbic system, helps us to recognize emotions in ourselves and in others. This brain region is frequently connected with autism, and many people with ASD have amygdala abnormalities including "overgrowth" during the first months of life.
Because the amygdala is linked to emotion processing as well as facial and emotional recognition, researchers believe that the more overgrowth the amygdala experiences, the more severe the person’s ASD symptoms might be.
Where Is the Amygdala Located?
Two amygdalae are located in the temporal lobes of the brain just above the ear. Their structures sit next to the hippocampus — another structure that works closely with the amygdala to process incoming information.
The amygdala can be thought of as the central portal that takes in sensory information from the rest of the brain and then determines what behavior your body should have based on this information.
What Are the Signs that Something Could Be Wrong With Your Amygdala?
What happens if the amygdala is damaged? You'll probably experience irritability, strong emotions, and even confusion.
Problems with the amygdala aren’t as rare as you might think. If you struggle with anxiety or a stress-related clinical diagnosis, for example, your amygdala might not be as healthy as it could be.
The following are a few signs that this brain structure could be involved in your discomfort (remember to contact your healthcare provider if you are experiencing severe or very stressful symptoms that you are struggling to treat).
- Amygdala hijack: This odd-sounding name is not a medical diagnosis, but rather, a term for times when the amygdala is overwhelmed by stress and takes over the brain's response to the situation. Remember that a major function of the amygdala is to process fear and anxiety. When the amygdala “hijacks” the brain, the frontal lobes (the logic centers) are unable to override it with a rational response.
- Anxiety disorders: The amygdala plays a large part in the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized and social anxiety disorders, panic attacks, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
- Depression:People with depression have more activity in their amygdala (specifically on the left side). In cases of bipolar disorder, though, the volume of each amygdala tends to be smaller.
- Trouble with memory: Though the hippocampus processes most of your memory, it’s connected to the amygdala, which helps you to form emotional memories.
- Difficulty with emotion: You might not have a normal fear response if there’s a problem with your amygdala.
- Hypervigilance: You might always be on the lookout for a threat or expect the worst if your amygdala is unhealthy. This symptom is common in both anxiety disorders and PTSD.
What Conditions Affect the Amygdala?
Listed below are a few serious conditions that should be treated by a medical professional. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, especially if you feel that they’re life-threatening, please contact your doctor or seek out emergency care.
Alzheimer’s. This degenerative disease is known for causing memory problems, personality changes, and dementia. It also causes atrophy of the amygdala and the hippocampus — two of the brain structures that are most closely linked to memory and emotional function.
Temporal lobe epilepsy. The amygdala is located in the temporal lobe of the brain. If you have a seizure that affects this area, your amygdala might be damaged. Temporal lobe seizures can cause mood symptoms, irritability, and even aggression. Researchers assume that these symptoms stem from overactivity in the amygdala.
Limbic encephalitis.Encephalitis, or brain inflammation, can damage the amygdala on both sides of the brain. Limbic inflammation can cause a person to struggle with their emotional responses and experience memory problems.
How Can You Keep the Amygdala Healthy?
It may sound strange to consider the health of your amygdala, but there are a few things you can do to reduce your stress and protect the overall health of your brain. Keep your amygdala as healthy as possible by doing the following:
- Practicing stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, and exercising.
- Work through symptoms of PTSD, severe anxiety, or panic with a trained professional.
- Eat a healthy diet, drink water throughout the day, and get enough sleep to contribute to general good health. Don’t rely on caffeine to keep you going.