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  • Writer's pictureclaudiaherman

Our Amygdala,Trauma Responses, and Why We Don't Remember Stuff.

Yep, catchy isn't it.


This comes up ALL THE TIME.


Our amygdala is our brain's smoke alarm. Some woman wrote a book about it. Oh yes, that was me.



When our amygdala activates, much like a smoke alarm, it is all we can hear.


When our amygdala senses real or perceived danger, it will make a split second unconscious decision to keep us safe.


Amygdala responses are 'fight, flight, flop, friend, freeze'


If in that split second, our amygdala assess our best outcome will be achieved by fighting the real or perceived it will select 'fight' for us.


'Fight' might simply look like anger. Anger is a safety behaviour because we tend to give angry people a wide berth in order to keep ourselves safe.


'Flight' is where our amygdala makes a split second decision that our likeliest success for achieving safety is to out run the real or perceived threat. Those of us that are 'flighty' who struggle to stay in the same place for too long, who struggle to commit to relationships or jobs, this is a safety behaviour.


'Flop' is where we play dead, dissociate, or just feel numb. In the world of predator and prey, this affords protection from predators that like to eat their food fresh. If we play dead we'll not get eaten. We're mammals, so this strategy makes perfect sense to our amygdala.


'Friend' is where our amygdala assesses our best chance of safety to be if we befriend the threat. This is a strategy frequently employed by the amygdala when we have very little power available to us, for example we're a child.


'If I can just make myself likeable enough, I'll be safe'. This can look like chronic people pleasing. People pleasing is a safety behaviour.


'Freeze' is where our amygdala seeks to achieve invisibility for us. If we're invisible, we'll be safe. Chronic indecision is a safety behaviour. If I never make a decision, I'll never make the wrong decision and I'll be safe. When we make decisions for ourselves we make ourselves visible.


'Fight' and 'flight' are active responses. When we fight the threat or run away from the threat, we have power.


'Flop', 'Friend', and 'Freeze' are the strategies our amygdala relies on when we are without power. Often, the case for children.


When we recognise our amygdala response, the kindest thing we can do for ourselves is to thank our amygdala for it's efforts in keeping us safe.


We can maybe create a space where we consider whether our safety behaviours continue to serve us.


This bit is VERY IMPORTANT


When our amygdala is activated we do not have access to our cognitive or logical brain. We only have access to our somatic or emotional brain.


Events, and experiences that trigger an amygdala response will not be stored as cognitive memories, neatly recorded with a linear narrative.


We might not have any words. We might have only feelings.


When our amygdala is activated, memories of these events are stored in our somatic brain. We remember the feelings.


We might have the sensation of a fuzzy outline or the edges of traumatic events and experiences.


This is very normal.


This is why we make for unreliable witnesses to our own trauma.


This is not a reason to be dismissive of our own perceptions but an explanation as to why other people will have different recollections.


If for example, I get mugged later today, I will likely give an all but useless description of my mugger to the police because my amygdala will have leapt into action to keep me safe, my cognitive memory will have been knocked off line, and all my memories of the event will have been recorded in my emotional brain.


This will not make my mugging any less real nor will it make me an unreliable witness to my own experiences.


Some more amygdala challenges to be aware of:


  1. If we experience trauma in our early life we will likely have an enlarged amygdala as a result.

  2. If we are neurodivergent, eg Autism, ADHD, we will have an enlarged amygdala.

  3. If we are an adolescent, we will have an enlarged amygdala. This is an entirely normal part of adolescent brain development.

Some of us are trying to navigate the world and make sense of our experiences with a super sized amygdala.


We can dial down our over responsive amygdala with time, appropriate support, compassion for ourselves and kindness towards ourselves.

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