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The Brain Series: Amygdala

A series on the Mindful brain

Welcome back to the brain series, where we explore the intricate workings of different sections of the brain, understand their roles, their development in children, and how mindfulness can enhance their functions. The last post was on the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive power. Today, we’ll focus on the brain’s emotional core, the Amygdala.

By learning about the role of the Amygdala, prefrontal cortex, Hippocampus and the visual cortex, we can develop strategies to regulate our emotional responses and thus improving mental health.

What is the Amygdala?

The amygdala, often referred to as the emotional core, is an almond-shaped set of neurons found within the brain’s medial temporal lobe. It is essential in processing emotions, particularly those involved in instinctual survival, such as fear and pleasure. While the prefrontal Cortex is the rational planner, regulating impulses, the amygdala is the emotional responder, controlled by the PFC.

Functions of the Amygdala

  • Regulates anxiety, aggression, stress responses and memories tied to emotions.

  • Involved in activating the fight or flight response, the amygdala impacts how we react to potentially dangerous situations. When we perceive something threatening, the amygdala triggers a fear response.

  • It also signals the hippocampus to store memories of the fearful event, to avoid similar threats in the future.

In children, the amygdala plays a key role in emotional learning and emotional behaviour- in particular when it comes to anxiety and fear. It is especially active in children as they learn to navigate their environment and assess threats. This increased activity can make children’s emotional reposes more intense and immediate. Your children can experience fear and anxiety more acutely due to this.

The amygdala and children’s mental health

When we struggle with low confidence, low self-esteem, emotional dysregulation to name a few, we are often in a dysregulated state and our amygdala is flying off the handle. 

In children the amygdala can be over-reactive. It can continue to send out distress signals even when the situation isn’t a stressful or scary one. For instance, if a child feels trapped or bored in class, it is not dangerous but the here the amygdala can overreact and see it as a threat. Everything neutral is perceived as a threat and can then affect the child’s ability to concentrate on the lesson.

As discussed in last weeks blog, the relationship between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala plays a crucial role in mental health. Those who have more neural pathways from their amygdala to their PRC are more likely to experience nervousness and anxiety as these pathways allow the PFC to be flooded with more alerts of threats from their amygdala. Sometimes the amygdala can react too strongly to a stressful situation. Usually, the PFC will override it to ensure rational response, but occasionally the amygdala overrides the frotal lobes, this is called amygdala hijacking.

The amygdala attributes emotions to memories in connection with the hippocampus. The more emotive a memory, the more likely it is to be remembered. It acts as a store for good and bad memories, and emotional traumas. This can be beneficial for learning but detrimental when it involves traumatic experiences, making them harder to overcome.

How does mindfulness for children help the amygdala?

Mindfulness practice, specifically breath work and focusing on the present moment can change the amygdala’s response to stress in children. Here’s how it effects the amygdala:

Calming the Amygdala

As we’ve already covered, often children experience emotions more intensely due to their developing brains. The amygdala can trigger quick intense responses to perceived threats. Mindfulness practices can help limit this reactivity by helping children to remain calm in the face of their impulses like stress- children can learn to pause and take a deep breath before reacting. Mindfulness has been shown to decrease the size of the Amygdala, making it less jumpy.

Enhancing emotional regulation through the prefrontal cortex

When your children practice mindfulness, they develop an awareness of their emotions and learn to observe them without immediate reaction. This awareness creates a gap between the stimulus of a stressful event and the emotional response, allowing the prefrontal cortex to engage and help regulate the emotional response. Throughout time, leading to the strengthening of the connections between the PFC and the amygdala. Mindfulness calms down the amygdala so that information can flow to the PFC. A Stix activity that helps with an overactive Amygdala is bubble popping. Children visualise their thoughts, anxieties and fears as bubbles floating through the air. The thought-bubbles can then be popped with the Stix using movement detection.

Strengthening the mind-body connection

Mindfulness enhances the connection between the mind and body, helping children become aware of how their emotions affect them physically. By noticing physical sensations such as a racing heart and tense muscles, triggered by emotions from the Amygdala, they can calm their mind and body. Stix activities explore ‘mindfulness of the body’, building awareness of bodily feelings in children, helping them connect with how they’re feeling. For instance, our balance activity which detects your child’s movement whilst balancing, changing the lights from green to red if you fidget.

How should we explain the Amygdala to our children?

As we discussed last week in the first instalment of our brain series, it is important that we teach our children the functions of the brain to help them better understand their emotions. Using cartoons and animations, describe the Amygdala to your children as the ‘jumpy superhero’ who tries to protect us at all costs, but often mistakes stress for real threats.

Pixar’s Inside Out presents the amygdala in a fantastic and relatable way for children. Inside Out focuses on the emotional life of a child, using characters to represent their emotions. Each emotion gives the child different messages and ways of understanding her world. The character Fear seems to be symbolic of the amygdala, her job is to keep us safe, but she will overreact to anything that could be a threat. As Fear and Joy are debriefing the day in the film, Fear says ‘we did not die today! I call that an unqualified success!’, illustrating the amygdala's job well to children - to notice and react to all stressors.

Tune in next week when we’ll be discussing the Hippocampus and its vital role in memory and learning.



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