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Meditation: The ‘Fight or Flight’ Response and your brain's Amygdala (long read)

Updated: Apr 8, 2022

Does this scenario sound familiar to you? Driving home rather peacefully singing along to one of your favourite tracks, before an inconsiderate manoeuvre by someone at a roundabout has you red with rage, raising your arm and vocalising your frustration with volume? Most likely an increase in heart rate and acceleration of breathing too.

Or perhaps in the face of an upcoming presentation at work, an overwhelming feeling of anxiety or fear of an imagined worst case scenario…butterflies in the stomach and sweaty palms lead to you being a nervous wreck, or not being able to deliver in best way you know you can?

How about in the context of the global pandemic we all are facing, the rolling news coverage updating us to daily deaths and new cases, worry over our loved ones and a forced new way of life causing anxiety and stress? (I guarantee this is happening on some level whether consciously or unconsciously – it’s impossible to deny that the whole world is going through a cataclysmic shift, and there’s bound to be an impression left on us the people that are living thru it).

Whenever there is a feeling of being threatened or afraid, or when we experience emotions such as fear, anxiety, anger and aggression, the amygdala, (see figure 1 below) the almond shaped emotional regulator in the limbic system of the brain, automatically activates the ‘fight or flight’ response by sending a distress signal to the hypothalamus (which is like a command centre communicating the brain and the autonomic nervous system) to release stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline in order to prepare the body for action – the heart beating faster to move blood to the extremities, pupils dilating and the slowing of digestive organs to allow more energy to be used elsewhere.

This heightened reaction (mostly automatic) to an external trigger (whether an event, situation or person) happens because the brain perceives it to be an imminent life-threatening danger - a defence mechanism that enables us to react without thinking. The ‘fight or flight’ response originally evolved to help our primitive ancestors in the face of the daily dangers to life in the early days – whether being chased by a sabretooth or a neighbouring tribe, or when hunting for food. An incredibly useful and vital mechanism in preserving life, and appropriate in relation to the nature of the threats.

Fast forward to now, and although the physical threats are less (said with consideration to the global pandemic), the daily pressures and psychological threats of modern life are ever-increasing; to make things more challenging, this part of our brain has not evolved to be able to immediately decipher between a life-threatening danger or a challenging social or personal situation.

(Figure 1) Source:

Acute (short-term) stressors such as parking fines, missing a train with a job interview looming, presenting in front 30 people or asking the boss for a raise are examples of when the ‘fight or flight’ response can be triggered as the brain seeks to 'keep us safe' – we experience the stomach butterflies, heart racing and acceleration of breathing – but usually quite quickly we return to homeostasis, our normal state, as we understand that it’s not appropriate to fight or flee in these social situations, and eventually we realise that our lives are not in danger - perhaps frustrating or nervous at that present moment, or an indication of something that we value needs to be faced that may seem challenging.

Long-term or chronic stressors such as mortgage repayments, job loss, caring for loved ones, parking fines, work deadlines or global news all have the potential to induce the stress response, with less intensity than acute stressors, but with the physiological and chemical changes that come with the activation (figure 2 below). A continuous release of cortisol and adrenaline, unregulated and unchecked, can lead to a lowering of the immune system, and much worse life-threatening conditions such as heart or liver disease and many others – this article by Suzanne Kane on overviews some of the long term effects of chronic stress on body and mind.

(Figure 2) Source:

This overreaction to stress has been expertly named the ‘amygdala hijack’ by Daniel Goleman, an American psychologist, in his book – “Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ” where the author describes how trigger situations can cause the amygdala to hijack control over your natural ability to respond to a potential stressful situation. Or in other words, the emotional brain reacts quicker than the thinking brain, which of course can lead us into many challenging situations…

So, is there a way in which we can regulate our emotions or perceive our triggers differently to avoid the ‘amygdala hijack’?

Studies into Meditation and mindfulness are really encouraging when looking at the long-term affects on the brain, one of the key findings from studies at Brown University, Yale and Harvard show that those practicing mindfulness and meditation over a period of 8 weeks had a reduction in grey matter around the amygdala. Those who undertook the meditation training experienced a greater ability to regulate their emotions in the face of a perceived stressor – we may conclude that this can eventually lead to cultivating a more mindful response to trigger situations in daily life, rather than fall foul to the ‘automatic reactions’ which occur so quickly without or involvement.

In one of her studies, neuroscientist Gaelle Desbordes showed participants images with emotional content before and after 8 weeks of mindfulness training – as you can see from the fMRI scans below (functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which not only takes pictures of the brain (regular MRI), but also records brain activity occurring during the scan. The image on the left a more activated amygdala and on the right showing less activation of the amygdala post meditation training.

Meditation, amongst other things, is a practice of learning as best we can to observe and accept that which arises in our awareness without being judgemental to what is observed. It is our judgement or appraisal of that which we perceive that determines the level of stress we will experience when faced with a potential trigger situation. Or in the words of American Psychologist, Dr. Richard Lazarus, “stress is a transaction between the individual and the environment.”

This intentional act of paying attention to one thing (for example our breathing) is helpful in noticing how the mind wanders and then reacts to physical sensations, thoughts, feelings and emotions as they unfold in our experience - usually aversion or suppression of that which feels challenging and indulgence of that which is easy and likeable. Through practice we learn to cultivate the capacity to be with the full range of our experience (whether we immediately perceive to like or dislike it) so that we may choose to respond if necessary, rather than reacting automatically without any control. Not everything that shows up, whether inner or outer, requires us to react or engage.

The practice in my experience helps to create some space in between the continuous commentary that may be playing out in the mind at any moment, in this spaciousness there is potential to perceive the inner and outer environment a little more objectively, rather than only through the narrow filter of a conditioned perception.

Mindfulness – the act of being alert and awake to the entirety of the present moment - helps with accepting uncomfortable thoughts and emotions feel them and experience them as they are...passing thoughts and emotions, rather than becoming them and being influenced by them more than is necessary, and without choice.

For me, meditation is training – training for what can be (and usually is), the chaotic nature of daily life. When we sit and close our eyes with the intention to meditate, we just never know what will arise (just like in our daily lives if we’re honest). It's in this practice where we don’t have the usual distractions or things to do – phone, emails, friends, colleagues, walking, talking, eating – from the moment we wake to when we sleep we’re constantly on. Inevitably the things that have not had the space to present themselves, or perhaps have been avoided or supressed, will arise. And so, it takes patience, kindness, discernment and courage to remain still when challenging and uncomfortable thoughts, emotions and feelings arise; not forgetting the physical discomfort, aches and pains that come with sitting still are very real, but there is the possibility to be with the physical sensations enough to have a choice to mindfully adjust the body, instead of reacting without thought to every slight niggle or twitch.

So, over time the things observed during meditation and the qualities developed, eventually permeate into the midst of daily activities and interactions. There is now sometimes space between trigger (external stimuli) and my response and as Viktor Frankl (Austrian Psychiatrist, Holocaust Survivor and author of A Man’s Search for Meaning) found, it’s ‘in this space where our power lies’ - the ability to respond mindfully rather than react mindlessly.

So yes, stressful situations will arise daily, some terrible, some not so, and we all still face a global crisis – but in changing the relationship between myself and the environment, the experience of the situation can be a little more favourable to peace of mind and well-being.

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