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What Is Amygdala Retraining?

Amygdala retraining is one method of treatment for war veterans suffering from PTSD.
The ability of the amygdala and memory to work together can be essential for survival.
The amygdala, part of the brain’s limbic system, can be retrained to cope with certain emotions.
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  • Written By: Marlene Garcia
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2014
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Amygdala retraining refers to reprogramming a part of the brain responsible for fear reactions that cause anxiety and stress. These programs use mind-body exercises, relaxation techniques, visualization, and conscious control of thoughts to bypass the complex circuitry in the brain responsible for fear responses. Amygdala retraining teaches people how to view emotional memories stored in this part of the brain differently. It might be used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, and symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome.

The amygdala is an oval-shaped part of the brain’s limbic system called the emotional brain. It is linked to the brain stem and regulates physical fear response by increasing heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, adrenaline, and perspiration. These conditioned fear responses in the amygdala can be found in thousands of species, including fruit flies, and are considered essential to survival.

Researchers discovered the brain reacts to fear and stress through complex circuitry that channels and stores memories both consciously and unconsciously via two different pathways. When a human faces danger, the eyes or ears rapidly transmit learned information about the threat to the thalamus, which separates information into two neural paths. This process happens automatically and typically without conscious thought.

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The perception of danger travels to the cerebral cortex, where information about danger is interpreted from past experiences, a process that might take a second or two. An alert also goes immediately from the amygdala to the brain stem, where the body responds by releasing stress hormones and increasing breathing and heart rate in preparation to fight or flee. The amygdala reacts instinctively as a survival mechanism and doesn’t rely on learning to perform its function.

Amygdala retraining uses the conscious mind to rewire the brain and change fear responses that occur automatically. People using amygdala retraining techniques might try meditation, visualization, or conscious thought patterns to change how fear is interpreted in the cerebral cortex. These programs aim to reverse the unconscious fear response in the amygdala by creating new memories that do not trigger physical signs of stress.

Neurologists consider this process difficult because reactions to fear represent a primitive function essential to survival of a species. They believe these responses were hard-wired in the brain to kick in when early human beings faced predators. In the modern world, where constant threats to survival typically do not exist, the fear response might limit a person’s ability to perform under stress or after a traumatic event that gets replayed in memory.

Someone suffering post traumatic stress disorder might experience physical reactions when he or she sees something that triggers memories of the traumatic event. Unconscious memories preserved in the amygdala send alerts to the brain stem within a fraction of a second, making it hard to control conscious interpretation of an experience to bypass this response. War veterans, sexual assault victims, and crime victims commonly suffer from PTSD. Doctors found some success with beta-blockers, which might control the severity of symptoms.

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