Help Your Brain Change and Heal: Sensitize Your Amygdala
Last week I wrote about how possible it is for the brain to change after trauma. This week I want to share with you one of the ways you can do that. It's all about creating positive experiences that last for long enough that your brain can record the experience through neural activity.
Whew, sounds like a lot of science and hard work, doesn't it? Actually, it's as easy as eating a ripe strawberry. Here's what I mean...
How You Can Help Your Brain Change
According to neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, "the brain takes it's shape from whatever it rests upon." What he means is that brain structure constantly changes as a result of the information flowing through it. Indulge your negativity bias (focus on the bad things) and your brain's activity and development will reinforce all of the feelings and neuronal structures that support that.
But, develop your positivity bias (your ability to be optimistic, for example) and you can develop a wholly different set of neural pathways that create a very healthy, whole and healing brain indeed.
How the Amygdala Affects Brain Change
The fact is, the brain makes structural changes according to how you use your mind. Take your amygdala, for example. An almond shaped mass deep within your brain, the amygdala is the seat of your survival emotions and response. Studies have proven that the amygdala can actually enlarge in people with PTSD. It's almost as if it's a muscle; the more you work it the bigger it gets.
However, studies have also proven that the amygdala can shrink back to it's original size when PTSD reduces. Want to know how to help that happen? In PTSD your amygdala gets sensitized to pain, fear, anxiety, panic, terror, etc. Starting today, however, you can start sensitizing it to something else, say, joy, delight, happiness, contentment, gratitude, etc.
How to Change Your Brain by Sensitizing the Amygdala
The major key to doing this? Creating experiences that allow your mind (hence, your amygdala) to have positive experiences and combining them with mindfulness practices that allow you to hold onto the feeling that experience creates for at least 10-20 seconds. This way you can sensitize your brain and different parts of it to good things and desensitize your brain and its part to the bad. Doing this will literally change your brain.
The equation looks like this:
Positive experience + mindfulness = neuronal change
Effecting this equation can be as simple as:
1. Choose a food you really, really love.
2. Eat it slower than you ever have before and really be aware of how it tastes in your mouth, how it smells, how it feels sliding down your throat, how it rests in your stomach and makes your whole body feel.
3. Focus on that good feeling for a solid 10-20 seconds. For best results: do this over and over and over again.
That's just one simple example. The truth is, whatever brings you pleasure can be used. For me dance and movement is a huge pleasure zone. So was cuddling up with my pup. It's up to you to decide, discover, explore and find what makes you feel good, even if only for 10-20 seconds at a time.
This all sounds very simple and maybe even ridiculous, doesn't it? Make healing progress while having fun eating? Yes, exactly. No one ever said PTSD recovery had to be a red hot mess all the time. It's just that until now, science never suggested that it could be so pleasurable either.
Rosenthal, M. (2013, February 6). Help Your Brain Change and Heal: Sensitize Your Amygdala, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, September 23 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2013/02/are-you-sensitizing-your-amygdala
Author: Michele Rosenthal
PTSD and amygdala volume correlation study...
Same here. I had an emotional trauma which resulted in 7 years, so far, of anxiety and hyper everything. it's pretty much a living hell. I guess I keep googling for some magic word, blog or phrase to make it all go away. My amygdala must be enormous too. My dr said today that it's very difficult to repair it. No meds have helped me, not even medical cannabis! He keeps recommending the DVD program by Annie Hopper but it's about $250! : /
A part of me thinks that this could be useful, but I can't even get started on a list of things that make me feel secure. A nice song would not make me feel safe and secure. A gun, maybe. Pots of money. A desert island far away from the rest of humanity. I must have an amygdala the size of a melon. I never feel safe and can't remember ever having felt safe. I will work on this though. I just don't have much of a concept of safety to work with.
hi I came across this post looking for help. I suffer from complex PTSD. starting at 13 I was forced by my boyfriend to have sex. married at the age of 15 was severely controlling abused me and the young years and early part of marriage I thank God that after having three children he did not abused me severely and was able to have a decent life and raise my children then at the age of 33 all hell broke loose he started drinking and got on really bad drugs I was shot at three times and ran thank God I was not here yet separated but he cried and begged for me to come back. I got in the car with him and he changed immediately he drove down the highway at a high rate of speed saying he would kill us both I almost tried to jump out of the car. He would not take me back home so for safety I said let's go to your mom and dads. I have to act like things were okay for a few days before I was able to get to the phone and have my mother come and get me. Separated for maybe a month there was and instill fear in me. He would either be rageful or he would be very needful crying and saying he needed my help gave in and went back so for the next 10 years the cycles of severe abuse and then the cycle of things being good went on. I was made to stay in bed was was terrorized to get up through the night because he would accuse me so much. He would use the most explicit foul sexual talk. punched me in my private threatened to kill me several times. this is just a little of what I went through things would be really good and things then would get horrific. I then had the most horrible write down I went into a terrorizing panic it would not stop. Went to the hospital they put me on ativan it stopped it but as soon as it wore off I was stuck in a terrorizing Panic with my heart pounding and my blood pressure high went to the emergency room again and they sent me to a counseling place. it has been 11 years now I have lived alone for 4 years now. And I still have the same thing happening and when they Ativan wears off. If anyone has any information of things that would help to stop this it has been since 2011 since that total breakdown happened
Excuse grammar! tried to go back and edit, would not let me:(
Ayahuasca changed my life. Was suffering from panic attacks, anxiety and depression and this helped break the cycle. It's not a magic pill--there is still a lot of work for you to do but it brings the subconscious to the surface and expands your awareness which allows you to see more, feel more, and creates space for a new way of being.
Hope this helps.
Look into Faster EFT by Robert Smith. It has helped numerous people.
I have borderline personality disorder brought on by abuse, neglect, and abandonment. Anything can trigger it and it's like I have raw skin. I've done emdr which saved my life and dbt. I'm on an anti psychotic for rage but I'm still experiencing triggers and severe physical pain in my stomach which I believe is tied in with trauma and it's physiological. I've had the best treatment and medicine that money can buy and I'm still very easily trigger granted I had a lot of trauma. I would love to have a scan of my brain to see if my amyglidila is enlarged and explore treatment to suppress it. What kind of doctor would I see for that? I know it would be a long shot to get someone to listen to me but any ideas? I've been seen by a neurologist for conversion disorder. Would I go back to him?
Dear Michelle and Tom,
Today, I think I did what you discuss. I was at an event at work that brought up an array of uncomfortable emotions. I said to myself "I need to leave." I left. (Big move since the president of the job was speaking.) When I got outside I said I need to replace my pain with something good or I'll turn to my addiction. I saw a bag with a camera store on it so I went. There I had fun looking at the electronics talking to people etc. Tonight I found your article. So I did what you write about. I experienced a fun thing to make up for the pain I had just experienced.
@Michael -- You ROCK! The process you describe is perfect. And look: you were able to remain present enough to pause, take a step back, assess what you needed/wanted, make a choice, take and action and follow through. Bravo!!!!!!!! The more you do that the more you will retrain your brain to turn on that process more quickly until eventually it might even just do it all in the space of a few seconds, allowing you to remain exactly where you are while your brain resets.
Hi Michele -- I have been really loving your emails and posts -- thank you.
One perspective on this page -- it's a great idea, but I deal with clients with severe early (family) trauma -- which often shows up connected to eating disorders...which mean, "no pleasure in eating." Food is something to be endured or avoided.
So this article's helpfulness is not accessible to them. Might be helpful to reframe this excellent idea and re-present it with a less charged subject...like looking at the starts or sunset? or, yes, cuddling with a favorite animal or even stuffed animal?
@Laurel -- Thanks for your kind words! And for sharing your insight. As a survivor who struggled with anorexia for over 20 years I guess I should have thought of that! I'll definitely follow up on your idea when I have time to revise the post. Right now I'm on my next writing deadline for my forthcoming book, YOUR LIFE AFTER TRAUMA, so most writing time funnels there.
Are you covering ptsd from the sandwhich generation working, school, 2 bipolar kids and my mother in tow, body fell apart, 3 car accidents, no time for surgery, adipex and chronic pain, etc., in this book or do you know of a book, by chance? Thanks ☺
Hi Michele -
I'm wondering why treatment centers don't use MRI, EEG or other similar brain activity scans to take patient benchmarks and baselines when they are admitted with a diagnosis of PTSD (or any other diagnosis for that matter). Wouldn't that be able to pinpoint not only a correct diagnosis but the severity of the illness? I would think insurance coverage would be a factor, however there are many patients and family members who would be more than willing to pay out of pocket to have a solid starting point for treatment. Because of the nature of PTSD and disassociation, a full and complete accounting of indications and symptoms by the patient cannot be reliable at all times. In this sense, wouldn't brain imaging and mapping be an absolute necessity before medication and treatment be introduced? Thanks so much!
@KGH2 -- You've got great vision! And perhaps that's the problem: You see so clearly what could be helpful while the larger machinery of mental health, science and the medical community will take some time to align in the way you suggest. One way to skirt this problem would be to find a neurofeedback specialist who can help assess how the brain is functioning and then help train up or down. I don't know whether or not that's covered by insurance. Alternatively, there's a nifty device that helps determine medication. I interviewed the CEO:
While I agree that MRI and EEG can be useful I wouldn't say they're a "necessity". PTSD recovery can be accomplished in a myriad of ways and many of us without access to the machines have emerged into freedom.
Wonderful work here, Michele! ALthough I've seen research that childhood sexual abuse can shrink the amygdala, that is not necessarily a contradiction. Just that the brain is really complex. More important, as we know, is that building mindful positivity is really good, healthy, healthful and fun! (keep on dancing!)
@Ari - Great to see you here! I would expect there to be research that proves CSA shrinks the amygdala. 1) because we're all so individual in our reactions to experience, while some people become more stressed others could have the opposite reaction, 2) in her book THE TRAUMA MYTH, Susan Clancy shares the findings of a study she did which revealed that the #1 response to CSA in children is a sense of confusion, not stress, shame or fear.
Indeed the brain is complex, and so is the mind. Put them both together and it's tough to predict the response to any experience. I'm so happy to know that we can, in fact, predict the brain's ability to continually change!
And, this takes a long time! For me it was 10 years of living basically in a bubble, eliminating as much as possible, all negative input, focusing on the positive world I created for myself. With the help of therapy and medication, I've gotten much better but it takes an incredibly long time.
@Grace -- You're so right, healing does take a long time. I fought against that idea for a while and then, when I gave into it, made progress much more quickly! So many ironies in PTSD recovery. If it weren't for the information we have that let's us hope for and believe in healing it would almost be too difficult to do the work.