Overworked Amygdala Triggers Panic in Abuse Victims

Have you ever had the experience of beginning to cross the road and suddenly finding you’ve jumped back onto the sidewalk without even knowing what you were doing? Then you notice. You almost got hit by a truck. Wheww! That was a close call.

How did you do that? It was automatic. You didn’t even register that your life was in danger.

That’s because the amygdala, the part of your brain’s limbic system takes over in such emergencies to assure your survival. There’s no time to think. To think would mean losing that precious second needed to jump free.

When a child is living in a traumatic environment, the amygdala fires over and over. Finally it just gets worn out and fires when even the most benign stimulus triggers it. What was meant to save our lives in really dangerous situations now fires every time a smell, sound or sight reminds it of scary situations in the past.

Here’s an example from Confessions of a Trauma Therapist:

A couple of times, I was triggered into trauma by Eugene Gendlin. Scaring me was the last thing the poor man had on his mind. The first occasion was in a Focusing session in Chicago. We were all seated in a large circle. Gene was talking about Japanese temple guards, fierce statues meant to keep the temple safe from evil spirits. I think he was comparing our own defence mechanisms to temple guards. He contorted his face and pulled his arms up into the position of threatening paws. He lunged across the circle at me to demonstrate. I completely lost awareness of the present benign context and found myself huddled into a terrified ball on my chair. When at last I came to I looked around the circle. Nobody seemed to have noticed. Maybe they thought I was just a good actress (p.156.)

Do you have an example of being triggered into survival mode? Do you have an exaggerated startle response? I’d like to hear about it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *