The Amygdala

It’s the first day of school for many people today so I thought it was a good time for a science lesson! Are you excited? No?
How about neurobiology? For a few minutes we can all become medical students (without the crazy hours and insane pressure). Does that tickle your fancy a bit more?

There is this little almond-shaped part of your brain called the amygdala. Understanding the amygdala helps explain why people with PTSD think the way we do. I think that’s important.
Here it is. The small pink area.
Human brain AMYGDALA - cross section
From the minute you are born, the amygdala starts keeping you safe. It asks “Am I safe?” constantly. All day and all night long. It keeps you alive.
When it asks “Am I safe?”, your thinking brain (the frontal cortex) will do its job and answer “From what I see, taste, smell, feel/touch and hear, you are safe.” The amygdala relaxes. A moment later the amygdala asks again. “Am I safe?”. The thinking brain will once again respond with “From what I see, hear, smell feel/touch and taste, you are safe.” This goes on without your knowing it constantly. Every once in a while the amygdala will say “Am I safe?” and if you are walking in a dark alley and think someone might be behind you, it will say “No! From what I see, hear, smell, taste and feel, you are not safe!” With this reliable information, your amygdala sends information to a different part of your brain to get out of there fast. It is the flight or fight response and having it is incredibly important. This fast reaction behavior is found in the back of your brain and is sometimes called the “reptilian” brain. This part of your brain doesn’t think. It just reacts. It just gets you out of that dangerous situation without even asking questions. Without some fear, we’d all live very short lives. Walking too close to an edge, a hot stove, that dark alley, a close call in the car… none of that would bother you and keeping yourself safe would be impossible. That is the good work the amygdala does for you every moment of your life. Thank you to that little pink almond in our brains.”
Enter PTSD.
That amygdala is humming along doing it’s job and life is good then BOOM! Something horrible happens. To cause PTSD, it needs to be a situation where the threat of death or serious injury of yourself or someone you love is present. There is almost always an element of hopelessness and there is an inability to escape. That amygdala says “Am I safe?” and the thinking brain says “From what I see, hear, smell and feel? NO!!! You are not safe!” The amygdala sends that fight or flight response but you can’t get away. You can’t stop the situation from happening. Once again, the amygdala says “Am I safe?” and it is told again and again “NO!!!”. It is in these moments that the brain can develop PTSD. The reptilian brain doing all the work now. You are in danger and you can’t get out of it. The amygdala and the reptilian brain are caught in this horrible moment and they can’t get you out of it. The thinking brain is rarely consulted and all the information is left unprocessed. It hardly ever makes any sense.
After this event (or events) happens, the amygdala continues to ask “Am I safe?” but the PTSD brain now says “From what I see, hear, taste, smell and feel? I’m not sure.” With this information, the amygdala sends the information for fight or flight and this happens all day and all night long. Suddenly the person with PTSD never feels totally safe. We are in a thought loop where the “fear switch” is now half on indefinitely. It’s hard to feel that you are in danger every moment of every day even when you “know” that you aren’t. There is no person, event or place that ever feels totally safe from then on.
Due to this “fear switch” being half way on all the time, the reptilian brain stays more active than it should and suddenly our reactions are so fast that the information never has enough time to get to the thinking part of our brain. React now. Think later. It’s not a choice people with PTSD make. It is how our brains are wired.
The good news is? You know I can’t end a blog on a negative note right?
The good news… with help, time, support and knowledge of how the PTSD brain works, we can slowly start to rewire our brains back to how they behaved before PTSD. It is not easy and it is not quick but even just understanding why you feel the way that you do is a start. You are not crazy, weak or refusing to think good thoughts. Your amygdala is telling your brain that you aren’t safe. The only way you can feel is unsafe. Try to let yourself off the hook for not feeling any other way.

“PTSD. It’s not the person refusing to let go of the past. It’s the past refusing to let go of the person.”Β 

30 responses to “The Amygdala

  1. When YOU explain why PTSD happens, it all makes perfect sense Heather; that people with PTSD are still in fear even if they are no longer in danger. It’s not surprising that PTSD affects many in the Armed forces – their brains are telling them to get the hell out of there and their training and orders are forcing them to stay put. Why can’t scientists and medical people explain it so simply and logically? Perhaps if they did people would be more tolerant and awareness would be greater. Great blog Heather.x


    • Thanks Wendy! I was hoping the explanation would make sense. And yes, anyone (military included) that is put in a life threatening situation (child abuse is actually the most common reason followed by being a battered woman) can cause this rewiring. It doesn’t always but I believe the statistics are about 50% of the time for child abuse victims, 40% of battered women and about 30% of the military. I do wonder if all areas are very under-reported though. Thanks for the positive feedback! I’m happy that I made the explanation clear. πŸ™‚


  2. Reblogged this on blahpolar diaries and commented:
    Brilliant explanation of PTSD and the anxious brain.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Marie Abanga's Blog and commented:
    First time to see or learn about such a very important word and element in our brain, and so glad to learn about PTSD 101. I hope several do to or maybe have already done? Thanks to you Bpolar who led me to this blog from whence I reblog πŸ™‚


    • Thank you!!! I will do more in the future. πŸ™‚ I think it really helps to understand WHY we act and feel like we do. We are not just going crazy (although it feels liek it). There is a physical reason and we can work with that right?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: A Wonderful Post from Heather’s Helpers: The Amygdala | Being Invisible

  5. Wonderful post, and it is important you ended with the encouraging note at the end because people can heal!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Addictions, Trauma and the Amygdala | Heathers Helpers

  7. Excellent post, HH!


    Liked by 1 person

  8. It’s a fairly new blog. I started it only in July. Thanks for bookmarking me. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wonderful post! As a person who suffers with PTSD, information is the best ally. I have a type of PTSD that comes from having many different traumatic situations for a very long time. The idea of being able to recover from this is a hopeful and helpful one! I will look into this further, for sure. Thanks for turning us on to this.

      BTW the comment from Goji Pro is spam. All good blogs get spam, so it’s a kind of reverse compliment! I always click on the blog link of comments from people I don’t know. This person does not have a blog link, and gives you a “canned” generic comment, so that’s a good indication that it’s spam. If not, let me know and I will be happily surprised and next I will apologize to the “not-spammer”!

      Thanks again,

      Liked by 1 person

  9. wow, your explanation of it all makes it all so much clearer to understand. My fear switch….I like to think of it that way. While I don’t have PSTD, my fear switch is always in gear. Thanks for the great post ❀

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Reblogged this on Me: Finding the Missing Pieces and commented:
    saw this on a reblog, and am reblogging it too! very good, heather!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This is a brilliantly simple explanation of a complex subject…thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: The Amygdala and the Breath | Heathers Helpers

  13. Very good post. I certainly love this website. Stiick with it!


  14. Pingback: The neurobiology of trauma. How PTSD begins. | Heathers Helpers

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