The amygdala is part of the limbic system. It is small, walnut shaped and hangs off the front of the hippocampus. It is fully functioning at birth and is designed to protect us from any threat to our bodies and minds, such as danger or stress.
The amygdala is the “passion” behind the “memory”. (Leaf, 2009) The amygdala works ahead of the conscious brain and activates faster than any other part of the brain – it needs to for self-preservation. Fear activation can occur in the amygdala within 50 milliseconds whilst conscious processing in the hippocampus takes 500-600 milliseconds. (Cozolino, 2005)
To help us make choices in life, our brains have both the amygdala and the hippocampus. The amygdala deals with passionate, perceptual emotions attached to incoming thoughts, and all the thoughts that are already in our heads, and the hippocampus deals with memory and motivation. The amygdala deals with both positive love-based emotions such as joy and happiness, as well as negative fear-based emotions like sadness and anger.
The amygdala is like a library, storing the emotional perceptions that occur each time a thought enters our brain. In other words, every time we build a memory, we activate emotions, thus we ‘feel’ our body’s reaction to our thoughts. The brain’s job as a whole is to predict and control outcomes. This means that past experiences dictate reactions to current events and repeat patterns are formed. The brain is biased towards what it knows and will follow the path of least resistance. It is the amygdala that “remembers” the feelings around each of these chosen paths.
The amygdala activates the fight or flight responses with increased heart rate and blood pressure and stimulated release of certain hormones. It provides automatic, rapid and unconscious reaction to thoughts or events. The amygdala “activates” whenever, through our five senses, we experience anything that reminds us of a past trauma. Thus, the way to deal with current triggers is to go back to the point of the trauma, access the stored emotion and release it from the body. The hippocampus will continue to remember the event, however the amygdala will no longer feel excess emotion around that event and it will no longer be a trigger towards a certain behavior in the future.