The amygdala is an almond-shaped mass of gray matter in the front part of the the temporal lobe of the cerebrum, called the limbic system. The Amygdala is the integrative center for emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation, but it’s most commonly associated with fear. As the limbic system is also involved in memory and attention, the amygdala is responsible for determining what memories are stored and where the memories are stored in the brain.

Your emotional center

Every emotion you experience comes from the amygdala. To simplify it, everything we experience is filtered by the lens of the limbic system and the amygdala. This region of the brain, also called the reptilian brain, is the most primitive part of us, and has been always supporting us in our survival.

The reptilian brain triggers the fight or flight response or sympathetic nervous system, saving our asses from getting burned, die in the middle of a river filled with crocodiles or jumping from a cliff. When in fight or flight, our body produces stress hormones (like cortisol) to help us overcome the stressful situation. Once the danger has passed, our body returns to the restore and repair mode, also called the parasympathetic nervous system, to help us heal. Why heal? Well, the cortisol and other a-like stress hormones are extremely harmful. They kill our ​immune cells if we are exposed to them for long periods of time.

Our modern society faces new challenges. We might never find ourselves in front of a cobra. What triggers our fight or flight response, the stress mode, differs from our ancestors. And this has a terrible danger behind it: we can run from a cobra, but we can’t run from many of the modern stress sources. A job situation, a stressful memory from the past, ​a family situation, an addiction… many sources of stress and one same result: our body is in constant stress. Our body constantly bombed by stress hormones. 90% of our physical and mental diseases, according to the WHO (World Health Organization), have their roots in stress.

Get real with yourself, the amygdala is doing its best in managing your emotional energy and you can do something about it: get out of the way and breathe. Take a break, breathe and give yourself some space to calm down and relax a little bit. When we allow ourselves to just sit and be OK, our amygdala interprets this as a signal to activate the restore and ​repair mode, the parasympathetic nervous system starts to work and our body releases endorphins, also called the “happiness hormones”. If our troubles have us tied to the same emotions, constantly feeling the same and thinking about the same things, sitting down and breathing gently​ can be extremely difficult. However, there is a way to teach our body how to switch from sympathetic (stress) to parasympathetic (relax, repair, heal).

Mindfulness: rewiring your brain in 8 weeks of practice

Consciousness inhabits the human body. This body is the vehicle in which we experience our “moment to moment” — created through the lens of the emotional brain, the limbic system and specifically the amygdala. As in a car, the transmission converts energy from the engine to the wheels, in the human body the amygdala converts emotional signals from the reptilian brain and interprets those signals, sending them to many other parts of the brain. 8 weeks is all you need! (click here to read this article from Harvard University)

The “state” of the amygdala matters. If the amygdala is not cool and calm, it cannot effectively interpret and modulate the signals coming from the reptilian brain. With a hot amygdala, all the signals will be interpreted as dangerous, triggering a stress response to help us overcome an illusory danger that does not need to be overcome. We find ourselves reacting to our environment real or imagined.​

The state of the amygdala, thus, not only matters, but it’s crucial. Our complete emotional state depends on it, and all our physical and mental health. We can influence the state of the amygdala with posture and breathing practices, specifically Mindfulness Exercises. That will take some of the heat off of the amygdala and it will cool down, redirecting some of the focused attention ​becoming the observer​, allowing us to detach from the images, conversations and body sensations that suddenly appear in our mind. Developing the “muscle” of the observer will give us more chance to consciously choose from a bigger range of emotions.

A hot amygdala can feel just a few emotions. It is attached to these emotions as a survival strategy, and does not know about any other emotions. With the practice of Mindfulness Exercises, we are helping your amygdala to learn from a bigger range of emotions. Actually, a huge range: ​thousands of​ different emotions! Are you guessing why you are always worried, angry, sad, depressed, scared… Well, those are the only things your amygdala knew… Until now!

In our daily Mindfulness Exercises we are preparing the emotional body for walking in the world. We are “cooling down” the amygdala. As we walk in the world there are specific beliefs we can embrace applying focused attention, that will transform the way we experience reality. These beliefs are supported by a “cool“, calm amygdala that we nurture every day in mindfulness practice.

Eric Knouse

Founder and Director, Mindfulness Exercises