Friday, August 22, 2014

How to Train Your Amygdala

I recently trotted my two granddaughters off to the discount theater to see How to Train Your Dragon 2. It was a hot, Saturday afternoon and the place was packed. In order to sit together we were forced to take a front row seat.  One thing about this vantage point is you feel like you’re rubbing noses with the screen (which, if I had sneezed, I would’ve been.) But it was great fun. 

Having grandchildren (or children) gives you the opportunity to repeat the fun stuff you enjoyed as a kid without having other people judge you for spending the afternoon playing with Play Doh or watching an animated picture. 

I admit it, dragons intrigue me. I’m not sure why. I’m a big fan of Harry Potter movies and mystical stories. Dragons are generally portrayed as villains, but in How to Train Your Dragon 1 and 2 we see humans and dragons working together.  Of course there is a lot of prejudice to overcome, but it finally happens. I apologize if this was a spoiler for any of you, but most Hollywood plots are pretty predictable and secondary to the spectacle and munching of popcorn.

I didn’t think too much about the movie and any underlying messages at first, but then I received an assignment to write an article on meditation for Beauty Link magazine (I’ll post a link when the article comes out.) I’m Buddhist and I chant the words Nam Myoho Renge Kyo every morning and evening. Occasionally I meditate as well, but I have to admit my knowledge on the effects of meditation (or chanting) and the brain is minimal.

Imagine my surprise to learn that meditation and other calming techniques can increase your happy serotonin supply, decrease the nasty cortisol levels, lower your blood pressure and even assist your healing power on a cellular level. Another thing I learned is when we get a jolt of anger, frustration, annoyance etc. a message is sent to the amygdala, a walnut-sized part of our brain that is responsible for our flight or fright response. If left unchecked, our fear-response is activated. 

Our reactions may vary a little depending on our personality, but it is rarely a good scenario. We might feel the urge to fight, take flight, yell, hold our breath, climb a tree, or any number of fear-based reactions. When the danger is real this could be a good thing for self preservation. But most of the time the anger or stress is more an annoyance (rush hour traffic, an approaching deadline, a demanding boss) than a real, life-threatening event.

The good news is there is a 30-second delay from the time the response is noticed before the amygdala yells, “suppress the serotonin and release the cortisol!” It’s like turning off all the water faucets and then igniting an internal fire. Fortunately during this 30 seconds you can take deep breaths and practice a mini-meditation, chant, or practice another relaxation technique to  help restore order to your system. 

Of course this little scenario made me think each dramatic event in our lives gives us the opportunity to be a hero. In most cases we can be kind to our system and psyche and cool our internal flames before it becomes a massive wild fire that torments our bodies and any innocent bystanders.  In the rare cases where we need our fear to protect ourselves and the world, we can let it kick in, jump on our dragon (and I think Amygdala is a good name for a dragon) and we can take up the good fight.

Both scenarios have a place in our lives. But I think it’s safe to say that our “call to arms” is not as necessary as our amygdala would have us believe.

During my post-movie discussion with my granddaughters I asked six-year-old Rosannah what her favorite part of the movie was. She liked the part when the kids and dragons fought the bad guys and won. Briannah, age 5, preferred the beginning of the movie when everything was calm and pleasant. My favorite part was when the heroes had to ride the only dragons that were available – the baby dragons. Unlike the adult flying lizards who followed the directive of the alpha beast – the baby dragons didn’t listen to anyone. And somehow I found that very refreshing.

We can do the same.  We are the alphas of our own minds. We can fly off the handle when we are in grave danger, or we can save our energy, relax by the pool, and live to save the world another day.

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