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The Amygdala Hijack, And How NLP Can Help

When we are scared or thrilled, memories are imprinted on our brains with particular vividness.

Deep in the temporal lobe of each hemisphere of the human brain is an almond-shaped structure known as the amygdala.

Part of the job of the two amygdalas (or amygdalae) is to scan incoming sensory impressions, pattern matching present experience with these vivid past memories to decide “Is this something I fear? Is it something I hate?”

If there is even a rough pattern-match, the amygdala instantly triggers the body into a crisis reaction. This match doesn’t have to make logical sense – sensory input reaches the amygdala before it reaches the neocortex, the seat of the conscious mind. As long as the match is close enough, the emotional reaction is triggered (see Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain, or Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence).

From an evolutionary point of view, this was a safety feature rather than a bug – if there was a genuine threat, our ancestors were more likely to survive if they reacted instantly than if they took some time to think about whether they they should respond or not.

The downside, especially nowadays when most of us don’t encounter genuine threats very often, is that once we’ve had a shocking experience, a partial pattern-match from sense impressions can be enough to trigger an overwhelming fear response.

What the amygdala is scanning is fragments of sensory impressions, before the brain puts them together into images of perceived objects. So a car backfiring could trigger the pattern match for ‘gunshot’, or a flickering red light could trigger the pattern match for ‘fire’.

If you’re walking in the jungle, the sensory impressions of a vine bending in the breeze (it’s long, it’s thin, it’s moving) could trigger the pattern match for “SNAKE!”. By the time the visual centre of the brain has put those sensory impressions together to a recognisable image, the amygdala has already triggered an irresistible fight-flight response. This is known as the ‘amygdala hijack’.

The Pathways from the cortex to the amygdala are overshadowed by the pathways from the amygdala to the cortex. Emotional arousal therefore tends to dominate thinking. Although thoughts can easily trigger the fight-flight response, by activating the amygdala, we are not so good at consciously turning it off (deactivating the amygdala once we consciously realise that we’re not actually in danger).

Any strong emotion makes us stupid – leading to black/white, either/or, right/wrong thinking. This can happen to even the most intellectually smart people.

Sometimes Traumas And Phobias Get Better Over Time – Sometimes They Don’t

How do our brains get over a trauma response? By reframing the incident, putting it in context, and making sense of it so we get some perspective. This is a function of the ‘thinking’ part of the brain.

This reframing can happen by itself, as the memory gets more dim and distant, or by talking about it. This is the basis of treatments like Critical Incident Debriefing – talking about a shared bad experience makes it easier to handle.

The problem comes when the trauma response is so strong that if the person tries to talk about it, the amygdala triggers the response and shuts down the higher thought processes before than can start to make sense of the experience.

In those cases, debriefing or counselling would be experienced as another traumatic episode and could even entrench the trauma response further.

How NLP Can Help Defuse Trauma Responses

The difference between NLP and other approaches is NLP’s emphasis on working with the structure of subjective experience, rather than the content. The big discovery of NLP is that it’s not so much what you think about that determines your response, it’s the way you feel about it (I know that this point has been made before by thinkers as diverse as Epictetus and Shakespeare, but NLP actually gives you practical ways to change how you think about things that are easier than trying to consciously argue yourself out of unhelpful thinking patterns).

Here are a few ways that the pioneers of NLP identified to change the structure of experience, so we can make sense of traumatic content.

Submodalities

Our experience is made up of a sequence of sensory representations in different senses – images, sounds, feelings, tastes and smells – along with our internal dialogue, which gives a (sometimes continuous, sometimes intermittent) commentary on what we’re sensing, remembering, or imagining.

How our minds depict these sensory representations can have a big impact on our emotional response. So if we imagine a person we like, the image of that person will probably (not certainly, because everyone’s subjective responses are different) have more impact if we see a big image of that person than a small one. A close-up image will have more impact than a far-away one. An image in vivid colour usually gets more of an emotional response than a monochrome image, and so on.

It’s the same with sounds – louder sounds usually have more impact than quiet ones (hello metal fans), sounds that seem to originate nearby will have more impact than distant ones, and of course we’ve all experienced the way that the same words will have quite different effects on us when we hear them in different voice tones.

These distinctions, known as submodalities in NLP, are like the codes that tell our brains how much importance to place on a given piece of sensory input. Generally (and again, not always, because we’re all different), placing the image of a memory further away (whatever the content of the memory), or making the image smaller, or freeze-framing a mental movie, will reduce its emotional impact.

One of the most crucial submodality distinctions is associated or dissociated. If you’re associated into a memory, you’re seeing it as you did when it actually happened, through your own eyes. If you’re dissociated, you’re seeing it at a distance, and you can see yourself (your face, or the back of your head) in the image.

When you’re associated, you will generally have a stronger emotional response, because the memory will seem more real – it’s like you’re reliving it. If you step out of the memory to view it in a dissociated way, you’re aware of it at a distance, as if it was happening to someone else.

We can use dissociation (usually most effectively by using the submodality of distance) to detach ourselves from the memory of a traumatic event, to give the reasoning part of the brain a chance to reassess it and put it back in context. When we imagine a traumatic event as if we were looking at it from a long way away, we can identify it as being that event, but we’re not getting the sensory pattern-match that triggers the trauma response, so our thinking brain can stay online to reframe it and make sense of it.

This happens naturally – if an unpleasant event is not so serious enough to be encoded as a traumatic pattern-match, it will be painful to think about when it’s just happened, but as time passes, the memory will seem farther away and so less painful. By playing with the ‘distance’ submodality when we think of the event, NLP interventions can speed up that ‘time is nature’s healer’ process.

Cognitive Reframing

Reframing is the process of changing the meaning or associations of a memory or a concept by placing it in a different context (‘context reframing’), or redefining or relabelling what happened (‘content reframing’). This helps us to make sense of a memory and put it in perspective.

Our thinking brains do this naturally over time, and talking about the experience can help, but they this is only possible if the trauma response is not triggered. A submodality intervention of placing the memory further away, or making the image of a memory smaller, can help with getting the necessary distance.

Once the experience can be talked about, NLP can speed up the reframing process by inviting the individual to consider other contexts where a response that they might be judging as ‘bad’ could be useful, or by relabelling an undesired response, or by ‘scrambling’ the bad associations of elements of the memory by pointing out other more positive or funny associations that they could have.

Anchoring

Anchoring is pretty much the same thing as Pavlovian conditioning – the pairing of a stimulus and a response, whether that happened accidentally or whether it’s done intentionally.

In a traumatic incident, particular stimuli (the sensory fragments that the amygdala associated with the incident) are neurologically linked to a trauma response. If the event is scary enough, just one occurrence is enough to make the link.

It could also happen through repetition, as when someone has a bumpy flight and is slightly nervous, then has another one and another one, deepening the anxiety each time until the person has full-blown fear of flying.

Of course, as Pavlov discovered, we can also deliberately link a stimulus to a particular emotional response, by evoking the response and applying a stimulus as the response starts to kick in. In NLP we call this ‘anchoring’ and we usually use it to link resourceful states to stimuli or ‘triggers’ that we, or our client, can control – so we can call up the resourceful state of our choice on demand.

Here’s a couple of ways that we could use anchoring to help traumatic or phobic responses:

Anchoring safety, security and calm

One of the ways that traditional psychology treats phobias is exposure therapy. This involves gradually exposing the client or patient to stimuli that partially evoke the phobia. Once the client can handle the ‘mild’ trigger, you move on to a slightly stronger one, and so on.

Anchoring resources of safety, security, and calm or relaxation can speed up this process. If the client is in a calm, relaxed state when a mild or partial phobia trigger is introduced, they will be better able to handle it, so they can progress through the exposure process more quickly.

Collapsing anchors’

The idea behind collapsing anchors is that it’s impossible for a person to experience two incompatible states for any length of time. The more intense state will ‘blow out’ the weaker one.

So in the procedure known as ‘collapsing anchors’, you build up a resource anchor that’s stronger than the problem state, set both of them off at once, and the resource state blows out the problem state.

This wouldn’t be the intervention of choice for a trauma response, since it’s going to be hard to evoke and reliably anchor a resource state that’s stronger, but it can work for milder unwanted responses. It’s one of the NLP interventions that needs to be conducted by someone who really knows what they’re doing, for obvious reasons.

Strategies

Disrupting or ‘scrambling’ the sequence of the trauma or phobia response

People have ‘strategies’ for having problems – sequences of images, thoughts, feelings and actions that they go through in the same way each time they have the problem, each step triggering the next one – a bit like in a Heath Robinson (UK) or Rube Goldberg (US) machine, or the opening titles of the TV show ‘Elementary’.

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Each time the brain ‘runs’ the problem strategy, it becomes a little more deeply established as the neural pathways widen through use. As the brain becomes more practiced at running the strategy, it goes through it so quickly that most of it happens below the surface of consciousness. It will seem to the individual like the stimulus causes the response – eating one cookie inevitably leads on to eating the whole packet, or the boss’s angry expression inevitably causes a fearful feeling in the pit of the stomach.

In NLP we have various ways of interrupting problematic strategies and diverting them down more useful paths. The simplest is to associate a new resourceful response right after the trigger stimulus, and repeat that association enough times that it happens automatically and never gets to the problem response. This is essentially what the Swish pattern is doing.

More subtly, we can elicit all the steps in a strategy, noticing what each step consists of. Where the step is a sensory representation (e.g. an image, or an ‘inner voice’) we can note the submodalities of each step.

Rapport

Finally, we shouldn’t discount the importance of simple rapport.

Until they see a therapist, the individual will be experiencing traumatic symptoms alone. Accessing the memory with appropriate safeguards in the presence of another person supporting you, so you’re not facing it alone, can in itself change the experience.

If we look at this in terms of Stephen Wolinsky’s book ‘Trances People Live’, which puts forward the idea that psychological problems are made up of various hypnotic phenomena, the presence of an empathetic therapist while the person accesses the traumatic memory will disrupt the solitary ‘problem trance’ that the client has previously been trapped in.

Research into what works in therapy has fairly consistently found that the quality of the ‘helping alliance’ – the relationship between client and therapist – is the most important predictor of success.

NLP Interventions For Controlling or Eradicating Undesired Responses

Each of these interventions or techniques will incorporate elements of one or more of the methods listed above.

Collapse anchors
The ‘phobia cure’ or ‘V/K dissociation’
The Swish pattern (for minor reactions)
Emotional relearning using timeline emotional clearing

Coming soon: a step by step description of the ‘NLP Phobia Cure’.

(image remixed from ‘Manoshacker’ on Wikipedia, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0)

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