Day 158 (of 185) the brains 4 Fs #blog4MH
The amygdala is a funny thing. It’s a regulator. It’s a controller. When it works well, it’s all goooood. But……as it plays a key role in the processing of decision-making and (especially) emotional reactions, it can be a tricky part of the brain to work with. The amygdala can be the bossiest of bosses when it gets triggered – often leading us into either flight or fight mode (run away or attack), sometimes freeze mode (unsure what to do next as any decision may lead to something worse than ‘nothing’) and sometime fawn-mode (if I act a certain way, I may be able to avoid the ‘worst possible scenario’)
Where is it?
It plays an important role for us: it controls the behavioural and reflexive responses that are critical to survival during stress. This includes identifying when to fight and when to flight (run away) from a dangerous event/activity/thing. For a looooong time, this has been very good: a cave bear appears and we would run and hide……or try to fight it depending on when/where it appeared! However, at times the amygdala will hijack the system: this is when a perceived threat goes directly to the amygdala….bypassing the usual “editing tools” that the parts of the brain such as the hippocampus and neo-cortex try to do. This means that when the amygdala is in charge (generalized anxiety and a vast array of mental wellness issues) emotional and social processing does not occur – just reactions stimulated by either specific reasons (oh no, I can’t find my mom!!) and non-specific (what if I lose my mom next week at the store or even on the way……..)
“We” (my counsellor first shared this with me) like using the hand model – each finger keeps the ‘thumb’ under control. When the ‘editors’ of the amygdala are working, then everything goes well. This requires regular breathing (not fast paced) good food (not necessarily good-tasting food 😉 exercise and outdoor time. When we are in a good-mental state, we are in control of the amygdala (fingers around the thumb). When there is a significant trigger – and remember: the significance that the person is feeling may not be ‘a big deal’ to observers, but to the individual suffering an anxious moment(s) it is the most important event….
This leads to the Big 3…..and an extra:
Fight – often seen as oppositional-defiance-disorder or physical push/punch/kick, the strategy is to fight back, or fight first.
Flight – nicely recognized as “run away” (a key phrase to Monty Python fans) the feeling is that by avoiding the situation, it will go away….or at least not have to be dealt with…
Freeze – hoping that the approach taken in Jurassic Park works: if I don’t move, I will blend into the background and nothing will happen to me……
Fawn – this term was recently shared with me and I like it: in a sense, if I become friendly with the ‘trigger’ OR if I model behaviours that are pleasing (sitting in a desk, working on a worksheet, etc) then I won’t be asked to deal with my triggering incident/event.
The hardest part is that when encountering triggers for anxiety, depression, etc you might use your tools to no avail; while medication can help, as can Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, as can exercise, as can…..a very personalized menu of self-regulation tools, it is easy to “slip up”. And when this happens, you need a team to be there for support…..but it’s not always easy. Just this past week, Soundgarden lead singer Chris Cornell ended his life – possibly due to a a connection to his medication that had a warning that too much can lead to thoughts of suicide – if you have these, consult a medical doctor….but as is all too well known, going to a doctor when in a state of despair can be more difficult than walking through a solid wall.
I’m starting to wonder if there t even a fifth F that the amygdala can lead to without a network of supportive people and tools: Finality – when there is no other viable option to flee/fight/freeze/fawn. As a society we need to make sure that mental wellness does not lead to this path, and I try to make sure we make a good start at this at our school level. It ain’t always easy, but it’s always worthwhile.