Although small in size, the little amygdala is an amazingly powerful alarm center in the brain. It stores data to warn us of future threats. When the amygdala neurons fire intensely, a physical stress response is triggered system wide. The little amygdala “sounds the alarm”, activating the nervous system. As nation and a world, we are currently in the grips of intense stress and the amygdala can be flooded with triggers on a daily basis.
While it is important to consider stressors in their context (our current pandemic), from a recovery/resilience standpoint, it is also critical to consider stressors in the wider “lens” of a person’s historic trauma. This is what I refer to as the trauma-load. Individuals with past trauma are often wired with a hypervigilant “alarm system”. Because of the earlier trauma, stressful current events can more easily re-activate this already overly sensitized system.
Conditions such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and phobias have been linked to abnormal functioning of the amygdala. This small, almond-shaped, area of the brain orchestrates the emotional response to an experience. Severe stress can produce a series of neurological changes and can “hijack” critical brain regions. PTSD may be an outcome of this pandemic for some and the resolution of it relies on a combination of both proper assessment and management.
Tools such as mindfulness (focused breathing, progressive relaxation, body scans etc.) when utilized with trauma survivors, has proven helpful. These interventions work to support shifting the automatic (often hypervigilant) stress response by bringing a person into the here-and-now. This can help minimize the heightened perception of danger and quiet an alarm system that is fueled by historic experiences.
Hope and Resilience!
The good news is that people are much more than just the working of their automatic brains. Research reveals the amazing potential of neuroplasticity, even after significant trauma. The brain circuits are capable of changing throughout the course of our lives.
In addition to the biological considerations, when addressing stress related disorders, building resilience is critical. As we navigate through this challenging time in history, a sense of community, therapy, proper sleep, nutrition, mindfulness practices and regular exercise can empower us to better withstand and emerge with greater resources and health.
©2015,2020 Christina Cowger, MA, MFT