For the past couple of months, every time Mike gets into bed, he suddenly begins to imagine that he is trapped in a confined space. He hates this thought! He doesn’t choose to have it, it just jumps into his head and however hard he tries to push it away, it keeps coming back to him. “This is ridiculous!” he tries to reassure himself, “I’m not trapped and I’m not going to be trapped!… But what if it happens?” And the fear invades his mental space again… and again… Until Mike has given up on the wish to sleep altogether and is in the living room soothing himself with tea and television.
What’s happening here?
There’s a small, almond-shaped part of our brains referred to as the amygdala. One of the amygdala’s functions is to alarm us when it encounters something potentially dangerous. This alarm system is triggered mostly by novel situations (like speaking in public or sitting for an exam) and by risky-seeming occurrences (like a dark, dingy alley or a rough-looking man walking behind you in the dark). We can tell the amygdala is ringing because we experience anxiety or fear. These emotions let us know that something in our environment could not be safe.
How cool is that, that we have a little machine in our brains that keeps us out of harm’s way?! The only issue with the amygdala, is that it can become overactive, and this is what is happening with Mike. His amygdala is working too hard to keep him safe and as a result, he is experiencing anxiety and fear when there is no environmental trigger for it.
The good news is that our amygdala’s are not completely out of our control. My amygdala belongs to me, and not the other way round. This means that I can take care of my amygdala. I can make sure that I don’t allow it to become overstimulated, and I can help it to calm down when it does.
Five tips to soothe your amygdala:
1. Make space for relaxation throughout the day.
When we run from one task to another, with no chance to take a breather, our bodies become tired and tense. The tension in our bodies communicates the message that “things are not okay” to our amygdalas. If we are constantly under pressure, the amygdala remains alert and it is very difficult for it to trust and let go at the end of the day.
If you want to be able to sleep at night, you need to let your amygdala know that everything is okay at different points throughout the day. You can do this by taking a 5-minute break every so often. Get away from your computer/phone, allow yourself to be still and resist the urge to fix/take care of things. Let the world be for a few minutes and allow yourself to sit/walk/breathe.
One of the most efficient ways of letting the amygdala know that everything is okay is to take deep breaths into our bellies and release them slowly. The next time you experience fear or anxiety, I invite you to notice your breath. It will probably be shallow and fast-paced. We can change this rhythm by consciously taking deeper, slower breaths. By doing this, we communicate to our amygdalas that it is time to relax.
If you have difficulty focussing on your breath, here is a guided meditation specifically for anxiety and fear, to help you do this.
3. Wake up to Now.
When we get lost in fear and anxiety, we are stuck in our heads and we miss what is actually happening around us. Using your breath as an anchor to the present moment, open your eyes and really look at where you are and what is happening in your environment. Take a moment, to really become aware of your surroundings by noticing what you can see, what you can hear and what you can feel. Once you do this, you will notice that everything is okay and your amygdala will begin to calm down.
4. Give space to your fear.
Expressing the fear can seem really scary. We worry that we will make it more powerful if we acknowledge it. The truth is, when we own the fear by writing it down or drawing it, we stop allowing it to run amuck. We claim it as our own and this empowers us and disempowers the fear.
To give space to the fear, choose any medium that’s most accessible to you. My go-to method for expressing fear is to write in a journal, but I have also drawn my fears and that helps a lot too – and I draw like a 5-year old! You could choose to sing/dance or dj your fear…the method is yours to choose.
5. Speak about it.
In the same way that creatively expressing your fear disempowers it, speaking about it with someone you trust, has the same effect. Fear is not contagious, so don’t stop yourself from sharing because you worry that it will overwhelm the people around you. Everyone is scared of something and your fear isn’t necessarily my fear. Even if we experience the same fears, when you share, you let me know that it is okay for me to share. And when we share together, we disempower those fears even faster!
If your worry about sharing is that people won’t understand you or might mock you, I suggest you choose someone who has shown you that they want to listen to and support you.
Remember that the amygdala exists to support us, so it is not working against us. We just have to give it the right conditions to calm down. When we use the 5 tips above, we allow it to work at it’s optimal ability.
Learn more about how to cope with anxiety.
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