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There’s a part of our brains called the amygdala. It might sound like something from Star Wars, but it plays a very important role. The job of the amygdala is to respond to any potential threats in our environment.

When it does this, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. We take shorter, shallower breaths and our heart beats faster. Our muscles tense and we begin to sweat. Our digestive system shuts down and our liver releases glucose for energy. We also experience a surge in adrenaline which gives us yet more energy and focus. In short, our body is preparing to meet this life-or-death environmental threat with action.

Our response to this perceived threat might be to stand our ground and face up to it (the fight response) or it might be to run away from the threat (the flight response). Either way, our body automatically prepares itself for physical exertion.  The term 'fight or flight response' was first coined by American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon in 1915. It is a primitive survival mechanism which has undoubtedly been one of the reasons why the human race has survived. To put it another way, the reason you are here reading this today is because your ancestors were worried about sabre-toothed tigers and rival tribes.

The world that we live in today is a radically different place to the world of our ancestors. Civilisation and society have changed enormously in the past ten or twenty thousand years but, fascinatingly, the essential structure of the human brain has not. We possess the same amygdala that served as an “early warning system” to our distant relatives, but rather than it being attuned to dangerous predators or threats posed by other tribes, it is now attuned to social threats such as embarrassing ourselves in public or not being accepted by the popular clique at school.

The problem is, whilst our amygdala might be tuned into more modern threats, it still responds in the same life-or-death fight-or-flight manner as it always has. The physiological symptoms (racing heart, shallow breathing, butterflies in stomach, sweating, muscle tension etc) are exactly the same.

The amygdala is the biological root of our anxieties. Human beings are very good at worrying about things. It is something we have always done because our brain is hard-wired to do it. Understanding this might not stop us from worrying, but it can give us some insight into why even our smallest worries can feel so significant and why the body’s physical reaction is so powerful.

Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy
Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
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