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The Amygdala and Emotions

Discussion in 'General Discussion Subforum' started by Walt Oleksy (RIP 2021), Jul 1, 2014.

  1. Walt Oleksy (RIP 2021)

    Walt Oleksy (RIP 2021) Beloved Grand Eagle

    I've been watching a series of really fascinating videos on mindbody medicine by University of California behavioral medicine professor Dr. James M. Satterfield. In one of these lectures, Satterfield talks and writes about “Agony and Ecstasy – Biology of Emotion.” He tells how emotions can alter our memories and how we learn and how they affect our health. Emotions are more than just a feeling, they are a whole-body phenomenon that activates our central nervous system, our limbic system, and even our frontal lobes and affect the immune system, cardiovascular system, and other bodily systems.

    Satterfield says that within the central nervous system, the biology of emotions involves the brain, and specifically the limbic system which includes the amygdala, hippocampus, and thalamus. The amygdala is responsible for fear and fear-based memories. The hippocampus is the keyboard to the computer that helps us enter in new memories. The thalamus serves as a sensory relay station, receiving new sensory signals including both visual and auditory signals, copies them, and sends them to different parts of the brain for processing.

    I became particularly interested in Satterfield’s discussion of the amygdala because many people with TMS symptoms post in TMSWiki.org that they have problems with fear and fear-based memories going back as far as their childhood. Dr. John Sarno says in Healing Back Pain and his other books that it is common for our symptoms to be the result of anger from our early years that has over time built up into rage that causes our physical or emotional pain. The amygdala affects our fears, worries, depression, and panic emotions.

    There is one amygdala in each hemisphere of our brain, masses of neurons on either side of the thalamus at the lower end of the hippocampus. An example of amygdala emotions or events that “trigger” a stressful situation is like a flashbulb memory of a traumatic event such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, or something that happened in our childhood or later years.

    I wanted to learn more about the amygdala and its effects on the emotions, so Forest lent one of his favorite books, What Freud Didn’t Know (2009) by Prof. Timothy B. Stokes. The book’s subtitle is A Three-Step Practice for Emotional Well-Being Through Neuroscience and Psychology. The book tells how the amygdala region of the brain evolved to unconsciously record, store, and activate emotional memory, loops, and imagery associated with painful events, especially those of childhood. It is the first book to bring together post-Freudian discoveries to produce a practice for understanding problem aspects of our mind in a clinical or self-help setting.

    Stokes developed a three-step method to help people become aware of what he calls the amygdala "scripts" or triggers of a problem situation that normally operate unconsciously. Step one is recognition of a conditioned response. Step two identifies the trigger. Step three involves conscious reconditioning through insight.

    Stokes cites an example of a woman named Mary who suffered lifelong anxiety and depression. Through several psychotherapy sessions, she discovered she had low self-esteem because she felt people were very critical of her. Eventually, by exposing her mind to the “script” or event that caused her low self-esteem, she learned that it went back to her childhood when her parents frequently argued, and when she was five years old, her father told Mary that she was the cause of their arguments because she was a worry to her mother. He said that if she was very, very good, her mother would not be upset and they would not argue. Being told she was the cause of the arguments created an amygdala “script” that caused Mary physical and emotional pain all her life. It was now having a serious affect her work because she feared she was not liked by her bosses and co-workers and also was not able to perform the work requirements adequately so she might be fired.

    By gradually thinking about the childhood script and her present day work and private life of feelings of low self-esteem, Mary found that the emotions she felt became less intense. Says Stokes, “The work that Mary was doing by imagining the original ‘seed situations’ and maintaining an awareness of her emotions while reminding herself that those emotions were simply an activated memory is a form of ‘exposure therapy.’”

    A similar healing technique is called “touch and go.” People call up a stressful feeling, acknowledge it as an old feeling, and then let it go by returning to their awareness of their present situation.

    “Exposure therapy” and “touch and go” exercises allow us to practice engaging emotions and to use our awareness to reduce their intensity. They are, according to Stokes, two of the most common means that therapist have found to effectively reduce the intensity of problematic feelings.

    Mary learned that her childhood fears from low-self esteem had been unfairly imposed on her by her father and they were not her own fault. Gradually, the realization and exposure therapy helped her to stop her “self bullying” and raise her self-image so she become a happier and healthier woman. She won the battle of her amygdala emotions.

    Mary’s low self-esteem situation reminded me of two examples in my own life. My father had often “put me down” when we were with his male friends. I never knew why he did that or what he said, but it always left me with a feeling that I was not living up to his expectations of me, without ever knowing what those were. I thought I was a good boy, behaved in and out home and at school, got good grades, and had friends my age. Everyone seemed to like me except my father. I became the first in the family to go to college and all my father told me was, “Do your best,” but I got the feeling he didn’t think I’d last a day much less graduate.

    I don’t think I developed a feeling of low self-esteem, but I know I tried extra hard to do well in college. I got good grades and became one of the editors of our college daily newspaper and felt liked by both teachers and fellow students. One day I found a note in the mailbox at my dormitory. It was from one of my favorite journalism teachers asking me to visit him in his office the next afternoon. I went there afraid I had not done well on a midterm or something. He shook my hand, relieving my fears, and told me that each year he found one student he thought was doing especially good work in class and who had a bright future in journalism. He said I was the one he chose for that year.

    I nearly levitated. My self-esteem sky-rocketed. I graduated and began a career as a newspaper reporter for the Chicago Tribune, later a magazine editor, and over the past forty years of being a freelance writer have had nearly fifty books published. I don’t have a big head, but have no amygdala problems as far as self-esteem goes.

    Others have other amygdala “scripts.” One came up in a recent post in the TMSWiki.org when a new member, Daniel, wrote:

    “I'm struggling a lot with when I do feel anger I don't know what to do with it. I let it boil inside and eat me up. I let the person who angered me control the way I feel. Then I beat myself up after even thinking of not doing the right thing to take care of my kids or wife's need. I constantly worry what others think of me and if I will be accepted. I worry how they will react to what I do or say. My anxiety has decreased since discovering TMS, but I still worry a lot about everything in general.”

    Another member, a TMS therapist, replied: “This is definitely an important question, and one that many of my clients have asked: What do I do with my anger? The first part of that answer is figuring out exactly how you experience anger in your body. Many of my clients are unsure of what it is to feel anger in the body. They know that they have angry thoughts, but are not necessarily aware of the physical sensation of feeling anger.

    “I’d encourage you to work on noticing what anger feels like within your body, for that will give you clues in your day-to-day life when you’re feeling even the smallest amounts of anger. I know this sounds like an odd process (“of course I know how to feel angry”), but I have found that learning to recognize the physical signs of being angry can help with learning how to manage them as they arise in everyday life.”

    I call that a good example of amygdala “exposure therapy” which can be applied to any TMS symptom.

    If you have an example or experience of fear, anxiety, or other TMS symptom, perhaps you will share it, and hopefully your recovery from it, so it can help others. It is my hope in posting about Satterfield's Mindbody Medicine Course that we encourage an exchange of comments from those on the forums and from newcomers.

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