Ever wonder why bad memories seem to affect you more than good ones? This is the power of our Limbic System and “Fear Conditioning.”
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The Limbic System Explained
When we have an experience where we get anxious, scared, or emotional, we send our limbic system into overdrive. The limbic system is the system of our body that’s responsible for protecting us from danger. It’s often referred to as the “animal” part of the brain. It doesn’t rely on thoughts or planning or reason. It’s reactive when triggered so that you can escape your predators. This is our fight or flight, or freeze response.
The Limbic System In Action
You were probably told as a kid not to touch a hot stove because it would burn you. Hopefully, you listened. But you may have come across a hot stove by accident.
What did you do when this happened? You immediately remove your hand, right? It’s reflexive. This is your limbic system in action. Your body receives a message from your brain: the message is that the hot stove is dangerous and you had better remove your hand or you will get burned.
Your body releases certain hormones and neurochemicals that cause you to jump into action. There is no thought. If you stopped to think, your hand would get severely burned. Thank goodness for the limbic system!
The Amygdala And Fear Conditioning
During this process, the amygdala becomes activated. The amygdala is a part of the brain right above the brainstem. It is responsible for creating memories that are specifically tied to heightened, negative emotional states. This is called “fear conditioning” and this happens when a person is under severe emotional duress. These memories are literally stored differently in the brain compared to other memories.
This is why you are more easily able to recall the one or two times that a specific situation caused you distress, but may overlook the 100’s of times that the same type of situation was uneventful.
This protects you from having similar negative experiences again. Back to the stove example. You will NOT touch a hot stove in the future if it’s at all within your control. In face, if someone holds your hand over the stove, you’ll instinctively pull away. You will have reactivated the limbic system-that fight or flight response because the amygdala has effectively stored the memory of the hot stove to keep you safe.
Real Threats VS Perceived Threats
Unfortunately, our bodies can overreact to other stressors that aren’t life-threatening, like a traffic jam, public speaking, or social pressures.
If a person has an experience that they perceive as traumatic, that memory can also be maladaptively stored. We’ve effectively been producing false positives to protect ourselves! Our experiences can cause brain circuits to change and send us into this fight or flight response before we even have a chance to think things through or ask ourselves if we are in real danger.
Stress Shuts Off Learning
You may realize that you are overreacting or behaving in a way that is counter to what you “know” to be true. Knowledge alone is not enough for lasting behavior change. This is because when the limbic system, that fight or flight response, is activated, you are responding with your animal brain. Your frontal cortex, the spot responsible for learning, shuts down. STRESS SHUTS OFF LEARNING”, so it’s hard to recognize in the moment that things are different now.
How To Break The Cycle
If you find that your emotional brain is derailing you, consider these strategies:
- Search for the evidence: Examine your internal dialogue. How much of what you are telling yourself is based in fact? How much is based in feeling? If your emotional brain is leading the charge, you may not be paying attention to objective facts. Search the evidence to determine if it supports your emotional response.
- Eliminate Absolutes: use words like “maybe”, “possibly” and “yet to shift out of black and white thinking patterns. Didn’t get that job promotion? Rather than I’m not a valued member of the team, remind yourself that the right position that plays to your strengths hasn’t come up yet.
- Challenge and rewrite your story: The stories we tell ourselves have the power to empower us or derail us. Research shows that rewriting particularly emotionally impactful events from our history from a place of nonjudgment and awareness can lead to new insights, increased happiness, and unexpected personal growth.
Don’t wait until anxiety impacts your health, relationships or daily life. You are affected by your thoughts and emotions, but you don’t have to be held prisoner by them. Use these strategies or meet with a trained therapist to move past the paralysis of fear conditioning and get back to living life again.