NDJ:7 Andrea Northwood, PhD

It’s How You Relate to Your Amygdala

I credit neuroscience for my sanity. This is no exaggeration. I’ve had years of therapy, most of it incredibly helpful. I believe in the importance of relationship -so much so that I became a therapist. The relationship is the most powerful tool of my trade. I work with survivors of political torture, and I train others to do the same. I direct a clinic and I do a fair amount of public speaking. I am good at what I do. But put me in front of a crowd, and without a good beta-blocker I become a flight-fight-freeze poster child. I specialize in quaking and trembling.

This bothered me for years. And for years, I fought with myself. I did not then appreciate what I was up against, as I had no idea there was an alarm center in the middle of my brain that was faster than the speed of thought and not at all interested in talking. I did not know the territory at ground zero. I thought I could gain the upper hand. Shaking was not part of my game plan. I practiced positive self-talk before I knew what it was, and I believed in myself. I would learn to relax. A product of my culture, I was all about self-control, tomboy moxie, and the triumph of intelligence. The cortical brain ruled my universe. I was Presbyterian, for God’s sake, and Presbyterians are reasonable people. We do not panic.

I first noticed it in the fourth grade, when I had to give book reports in front of the class and my shaking hands betrayed carefully crafted efforts to portray an otherwise cool confidence. Later, piano recitals were a disaster. By the time I reached college, the essays in my blue book exams resembled a centenarian’s violent scribbles. You would think that experiential learning, via multiple avenues of academic and athletic success, would have taught me that I really didn’t have anything to fear. You would think that a sane person would come to terms with the lack of evidence for an imminent public execution. Alas, my amygdala was totally unimpressed. This is the part of the brain that we have in common with, say, lizards. It has its own ideas about perceived danger. In fact, it got better at sounding the panic alarm because the culpable neuropathways involved were brazenly strengthened by repeated triggering, as I stubbornly refused to avoid what I feared. It should be more complex than this: what fires together, wires together. For all my education and therapy, I could not stop the firing to save my life.

It took teaching a class to enlighten me. Going through the internal motions of fighting a man-eating predator is just too exhausting three times a week. I chucked cognitive-behavioral strategies and emotionally corrective experiences out the window, and I went in search of meds. I became an overnight fan of pharmacology. Propranolol, a beta-blocker, allowed me to teach, finish graduate school, and become a productive member of society. Propranolol understood the language of my reptilian brain. It did not try to outsmart it or change it or turn it off; it spoke a pre-emptive lingo of signal interference. What a relief. I no longer had to figure out a way to trick my phylogenetically older and wiser mid-brain with my infancy-state-of-evolution thinking brain.

If you read the news, you know who is in charge. It ain’t the prefrontal cortex. The reptilian part of the brain is responsible for our survival and knows it, in about 7 micro seconds. You can’t argue with the amygdala. But you can change your relationship to it. This has not been easy for me, but I’m on my way. I tell my clients, who are known to dive under tables frequently around July 4th, to think of the amygdala as a car alarm. Before their trauma, it took a break-in through the car window to set off their alarm. Now, all it takes is the wind. Or a falling leaf. But this is also what saved them. A hyper-sensitive alarm system is adaptive when a rap on the front door means you need to be halfway out the back window by the time you register a thought, much less a plan. They never fail to understand this metaphor, and they nod knowingly. “Yes, that is it,” they say. The reptilian brain trumps the Ph.D. brain hands down, every time.