Treating Amygdala Based Anxiety Panic Attacks and PTSDBasically cortex based anxiety responds to cognitive talking psychotherapies and amygdala based anxiety doesn’t, the amygdala makes simple associations, such and such a thing is threatening or such and such a thing is not threatening, the amygdala only learns through direct experience and to reprogram it to make new associations we have to expose it to new experiences, this is called exposure therapy discussed below.
Finding the Right Treatment for your Type of AnxietyUnderstanding the difference between amygdala based anxiety and cortex based anxiety is important to help you choose the right treatment solution. Below I’ll explain how you can change the programming in your amygdala and diminish over-activity in your amygdala to overcome amygdala based anxiety, firstly let’s look at how the amygdala works in more detail.
Understanding the Amygdala and AnxietyA primary function of the amygdala is to scan the world around us and if it detects something that is the same or even just similar to something that was previously perceived as dangerous or threatening it fires off an emergency fight, flight or freeze stress response into our brain and body; this can cause feelings of anxiety or even fully hijack the brain and produce a panic attack (amygdala hijacking). This rapid response can save your life in an emergency unfortunately however the amygdala can be incorrectly programmed and decide that something is a threat when it isn’t; it may for example decide that groups of people are threatening giving you social anxiety or specific sounds of threatening triggering a panic/PTSD response.
Without knowing it even happening (unless you have hypervigilance) our senses -eyes, ears, smell etc are constantly actively scanning our environment and sending megabytes per second of data to our brain, all this information is sent to the thalamus with acts like a relay station. The thalamus sends a quick summary of what is going on to our amygdala and a full report of what is going on to our cortex, if the amygdala detects or finds a match between something that is happening now and something that it was programmed in the past to proceed as threatening it then immediately triggers a stress response and it can do this independently before the thinking cortex of the brain have even had time to process what’s going on; it’s been determined that the cortex receives sensory information from the thalamus in 24 ms but the amygdala receives sensory information in half the time just 12 ms.
So the amygdala identifies a threat you cannot stop it producing a stress or panic response by thinking the situation through or telling yourself you’re okay, by the time you’re thinking brain knows what’s going on the amygdala has already done its job and because of this arrangement cognitive-based talking psychotherapies that work on changing the way we think are generally ineffective at treating amygdala based anxiety. It also means that as far as your thinking brain goes the feelings of anxiety/panic produced by amygdala based anxiety appear to come out of the blue from nowhere in contrast to cortex based anxiety on which we imagine, ruminate and conjure up worrying and anxious thoughts and scenarios that go around and around in our thinking brain escalating into a state of anxiety see Cortex Based Anxiety.
The New Way to Treat AnxietyI treated all types of anxiety for many years using natural remedies and
I think the great advances in our understanding of how the amygdala works made in recent years is due to the increased interest from the military in how recuperate the large numbers of soldiers currently with PTSD. One of the techniques I’ve adopted from military research is to perform amygdala reprogramming or exposure therapy at the same time as being under the influence of substances that produce a calming effect in the brain; the military used MDMA also known as Ecstasy, I use a combination of ashwagandha, taurine, passionflower, theanine and phenibut, don’t expect any Ecstasy during my treatments!
See Assisted Amygdala Reprogramming and Exposure Therapy for Anxiety, PTSD and OCD
In addition to changing the programming in the amygdala we can permanently dampen down overactivity in the amygdala, brain scans have shown people with anxiety have enlarged and overactive amygdala’s and we can reduce the size and activity of the amygdala with as little as three months intensive meditation brain training, another beneficial spin-off of meditation brain training is that improves the function of several other parts of the brain involved in anxiety. To increase the rate at which the brain responds to meditation you can combine it with supplements diets and physical exercises to increase neuroplasticity.
See Meditation Brain Training to Rewire the Anxious Brain
Amygdala HijackingIf the amygdala assesses the threat or danger to be not too severe it will simply produce what you might call a regular stress response and feeling of anxiety, however if the amygdala rightly or wrongly believes the threat is very severe it has the ability to impose a state of emergency in the brain, this is called an amygdala hijacking. In an amygdala hijacking the thinking cortex part of the brain is dumbed down and switched off to protect it from sensory overload, this makes it even harder for someone having a panic attack to work out what’s going on.
Reprogramming the Amygdala with Exposure TherapyAs already mentioned the amygdala learns through experience and association, a if as a young infant you picked up a bumblebee and it stings you your amygdala learns bumblebees are dangerous, your amygdala might even learn that a buzzing sound is dangerous, or being around flowers perhaps just the smell of flowers is dangerous, or the countryside in general is dangerous and for ever more unless you reprogram your amygdala you may feel uneasy when exposed to these things. However the programming in the amygdala isn’t permanently fixed, it can be updated, modified and amended, or the old programming can be left in place and alternative programming can be installed; as you know you can learn new things and change what you previously thought all the time and the amygdala is also capable of learning new things, we just have to speak to it in the way that it learns and understands.
No matter how many times someone else tells you or you tell yourself with your thinking cognitive mind that bees and flowers in the countryside are safe your amygdala will not change its programming, if however you were to expose yourself to the anxiety trigger (the site or sound or smell of bees, flowers or the countryside) and nothing bad happened to you the amygdala learns that you can be in contact with whatever the trigger is and be safe at the same time; this is the basis of exposure therapy.
There are different versions of exposure therapy, there is a jump in the deep end rapid intense exposure version called flooding for which there is evidence that it can work but my experience is very few people with anxiety/OCD are willing to try it and I worry that if a person tries the flooding exposure technique and they find it too difficult and failed to complete the process it could possibly re-traumatising them; nevertheless if you have severe anxiety or OCD to consider this hard to do but potentially effective treatment.
The version of exposure therapy I practice is gradual exposure (using the power of one’s imagination in a deeply relaxed/hypnotic condition) in manageable steps combined with natural remedies to boost dopamine and GABA levels and natural remedies that increase the brains ability to grow new connections and re-wire itself (neuroplasticity) to speed-up the process and enhance the effectiveness of the treatment. Furthermore before even commencing an exposure therapy session I recommend engaging in at least thirty hours of focused-attention mindfulness meditation practice; thirty hours of mindfulness meditation practice has been shown to increase the size and density of connections in the prefrontal cortex which helps the brain to control anxiety and diminish the size and density of connections in the amygdala. I believe an intensive course of appropriate meditation prior to commencing the exposure therapy treatment makes the treatment more effective and easier to go through.
Anxiety Perpetuates AnxietyAnxiety and OCD leads people to avoid the things they are anxious about unfortunately this avoidance strategy only brings temporary relief and perpetuates the problem and all the restrictions it imposes on your life. To remodel a specific memory you have to bring it up into your awareness and to change a specific memory or learned association programmed into the amygdala triggering the anxiety we have to feel the anxiety it’s possible to do this in a progressive and manageable way even just using the power of your imagination, the point I’m making here however is that it’s essential for the reprogramming to take place that you learn how to bring the anxious feelings up and stay with them until they subside; your living with your problem all the time anyway so spending a few minutes of intensifying the feelings in therapy in order to reduce it is not as bad as it may sound and in my practice I perform exposure therapy with the assistance of deep relaxation brain training exercises and natural remedies to control the level of anxiety.
I offer this at my London clinic however if you live too far away you can consult with me via Skype (see Skype Coaching Sessions) to work out the right individual prescription of remedies and then use this technique with a local suitably qualified psychotherapist that is willing to try this new approach.
See Assisted Amygdala Re-programming and Exposure Therapy for Anxiety, PTSD and OCD
Does Exposure Therapy Work?Yes is the simple answer, asking that question is like asking the question can the brain learn new things well yes of course it can we know it can, you have probably had the experience of previously being afraid of something and then overcoming the fear, can you think of anything from your childhood that you were once afraid of, the dark, or thunderstorms or being served broccoli and now you’re okay with that thing; as a child I afraid of the space under my bed in the dark, I didn’t like stepping on the cracks the pavement (sidewalk) and as an adult I developed terrible fear of public speaking but these things don’t bother me anymore. I’ve gotten in and out of bed enough times and walked enough pavements to prove to my amygdala that these things pose no threat whatsoever and I overcame my fear public speaking by exposing myself to public speaking while under the influence of anti-anxiety herbs/remedies and on a couple of occasions a little alcohol.
In exactly the same way that your amygdala learned something in the first it can be taught to learn something new with the right approach.
Rewiring Amygdala Based Anxiety with Meditation Brain TrainingIn addition to running unwanted redundant anxiety producing programming the amygdala can simply be enlarged and overactive giving rise to a generally overly fearful brain. Brain scans have shown the amygdala is larger and has a greater number of connections in people with anxiety disorders, it suggested that the size of the amygdala can predict the development of anxiety in children. The amygdala can definitely grow bigger and develop a greater number of connections when exposed to prolonged stress and, it’s also likely that some people are simply born with an over-developed amygdala, just living with an anxiety disorder is stressful and the anxiety itself regularly over activate the amygdala so it gets lots of exercise and develops even further.
It’s not important for us to know whether we were born with an overactive amygdala i.e. genetic programming or we developed and overactive amygdala from exposure to psychological stress, what’s more important than answering this nature versus nurture debate is how can we change the amygdala we’ve currently got to stop it wrecking our lives with an anxiety disorder. We can actually shrink and thin out the density of connections in our amygdala with an intensive course lasting several months of mindfulness-based meditation brain training.
I’ve never seen anybody overcome an anxiety condition with meditation alone however everyone I’ve ever seen it has completed an intensive course of meditation has significantly and more or less permanently reduced the condition, my anecdotal reporting is that people experience a reduction in their anxiety from somewhere between 25 to 50%; if you combine this with all the other techniques available you can reach a point at which your brain stops producing painful and debilitating levels of anxiety and panic attacks.
Brain scans of people with depression and anxiety before and after performing three months of twenty minutes a day daily practice of mindfulness based meditation show an increase in the density of connections in the cortex and a decrease in the size and density of connections in the amygdala, this is a remarkable effect, but exactly what we want and is produced without the use of any drugs or side-effects. Moreover the changes produced by mindfulness brain training techniques are long-lasting to permanent.
To enhance the effectiveness of mindfulness-based meditation brain training I’ve modified the classic mindfulness technique to attempt to make it a more intensive/effective therapy and to make it easier to do for people with anxiety. In the same way that you can take natural antianxiety remedies before performing the exposure therapy you can also take these remedies before performing meditation if you’re finding it difficult to start the meditation because of your anxiety hijacking your mind; furthermore I have a combination of remedies that boost the protein in the brain called BDNF, BDNF stimulates the growth of new connections in the brain and when combined with meditation should enhance the rewiring process.
Putting a Treatment Plan for Amygdala Based Anxiety TogetherStep 1/ You could begin with using natural remedies to rebalance your neurotransmitters (boost serotonin and GABA levels and attenuate excessive glutamate). You may need to do this to replace and wean yourself off prescription medications you are currently taking, but please only do this with the support of an appropriately qualified professional.
You should also begin to improve your diet, gut microbiome, the amount of physical exercise you do and the quality of your sleep; all of which reduce the symptoms of anxiety even if only slightly.
Step 2/ Perform 30 to 45 hours of mindfulness-based meditation brain training whilst at the same time following a diet that support neuroplasticity and using natural remedies and specific exercises to boost the production of BDNF. See my Neuroplasticity/BDNF Boosting Protocol
Step 3/ Reprogram your amygdala with exposure-based therapy.
See my Assisted Amygdala Reprogramming and Exposure Therapy for Anxiety PTSD and OCD
I know what it’s like when you’re suffering from a mental health problem it feels totally real and that it cannot be changed but that’s the illness talking, it’s just the imbalance your neurotransmitters and the wiring in your brain distorting your perception; when you change these things the distortion stops and the condition disappears. Changing the brain is a gradual process and successfully switching off anxiety using these techniques will require somewhere between 6 to 18 months of work.
Anxiety is treatable, good luck :-)
For a tailor made individual prescription using these treatment methods I offer face to face consultations in London and long distance appointments via Skype
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