What is the amygdala and what does it do?
Anxiety comes from two places in the brain. One is the cortex and the other is the thalamus. We receive information about our environment through our eyes and it goes to the cortex and thalamus. The cortex is usually the part of the brain that people think of because it’s the wrinkled outer layer. The cortex is the source of all of the incredible abilities, however, it is also where anxiety comes from. The amygdala is the source of our emotional reactions, it forms and recalls emotional memories. When we fear a particular situation or object, we may be able to recall an experience that the amygdala learned that fear response. Keep in mind that we might not always be able to recall how the amygdala-based fear developed, since the cortex can be left out of the loop, as it’s not able to retrieve a memory related to the event. Our thalamus is another place that sends information to the amygdala. The important thing to remember is to have an understanding of the circuitry because parts of it can be modified, so that you can experience less anxiety. Moderate to intense exercise or running can help get the brain to a place where you can lower anxiety.
I recommend doing additional reading in order to gather more in-depth knowledge on how this works. Rewire Your Anxious Brain by Catherine M. Pittman, PhD and Elizabeth M. Karle, MLIS is a fantastic book covering all of this neuroscience.
Amy the amygdala
Amy is that family member who is always looking out for you, but sometimes it’s unhelpful. She brings up things from the past, such as danger, an issue, the things that make us feel anxious or fearful. Amy wants to protect you and keep you safe, it’s her job. Sometimes it’s unhelpful when she reminds us of a particular event, when to her, the event relates to what we’re facing today, but it doesn’t fully line up with our reality. We can be completely safe, but when Amy signals for our heart to race, body to tingle, a response to anxiety, it causes us to feel unsettled and like we need to take action to be safe. This can be as small as you’re sitting eating breakfast and you get a knock at your door. You’re not expecting anyone, so who could it be? Amy is alerted because the situation could be dangerous, like that time you were pumping gas into your vehicle and were approached by a strange character who made your stomach drop and you were afraid, but the situation turned out okay. Your stomach drops and you freeze for a moment. What if the person at your door is going to hurt you? What if they are going to try to rob you? What if they want to try to sell you something and you have trouble getting them to leave? Amy remembers the event at the gas station and reminded you. So, you grab your phone for safety reasons and go peek through the window before answering the door. You feel more tense in your body as you go to look through the window. It ends up that there’s no one standing there, but the UPS delivery person was pulling away and your package was sitting there. Silly Amy, it’s just the delivery person, it arrived a day early! You feel relieved as you take a deep breathe to regulate yourself. Amy reminded you about an event of being approached by an unexpected stranger.
Shut up, Amy, we’re going on a run!
Exercise and running, particularly at a moderate or high intensity calms the amygdala. When we’re behaving in a way that is “fighting,” a basic instincts of survival, we are sending those signals to our amygdala and it regulates, sensing that things are okay. When the next stressful situation occurs, setting Amy off, but it’s unhelpful, you can quiet her by going on a run.
How do you know if exercising or running helped?
Pay attention to how you emotionally and physically feel before you begin exercising. When you finish, take note again. Some people like to keep track of their thoughts, emotions and behaviors by charting them or journaling about them.
I can help you manage anxiety and rewire your thinking
I work closely with endurance runners and athletes on managing anxiety. I also support people who struggle with trauma and/or eating disorders. Exercise is important for mental health, so I encourage people to exercise appropriately, in a healthy, safe manner. Lastly, we can talk about the unique issues that athletes face, like forming healthy habits, work/life/training balance, injury, DNS and DNF. Let’s talk if you’re going through any of these, I’m here to help.