Amygdala Script Concept

 

George was having lunch with a few of his coworkers. It had begun okay, but as their lunch continued George found himself less and less willing to engage in the banter. A familiar image of himself as an unpopular outsider overshadowed his thoughts and feelings. A certainty that he was not someone who could realistically expect to be a warmly accepted part of this, or any other, social group had become more and more prevalent in his thoughts for the past few months; and now his self-doubt seemed to be reaching a crescendo. By the time the lunch drew to a close George was mired in a dark cloud of irritability and unhappiness – he had drifted into a familiar world of hopeless depression.

George decided it was time to return to psychotherapy.

When George mentions his lunchtime experience to his new therapist, the therapist appears surprisingly interested in the details, asking that George re-imagine and carefully describe the event. Since the luncheon, George’s angst had subsided into an all too familiar dull, lethargic cloud of depression. Now in his detailed re-telling, he reluctantly begins to invoke those same intense awful feelings that catapulted him into his present malaise. The therapists asks George about the subtle bodily sensations that seem to accompany the painful emotions he’s been feeling. This prompts George to focus on where in his body he associates the bad feelings. He notices a heavy oppressive feeling in his chest, an awful sick feeling in his stomach area and a weak, energy-depleted feeling throughout his body.

The therapist is pleased that George is able to identify where in his body these feelings reside. He asks George to focus his attention on those emotions that he has just described, and he wonders aloud if these feelings seem old and familiar to George, or are they feelings that were born primarily out of this lunchtime experience. George readily recognizes that these experiences are sadly familiar to him. In fact, they have periodically haunted him for much of his life.

The therapist now wants George to describe, in detail, other similar examples of situations that seem to exacerbate or activate George’s depression. George describes a recent breakup with a girlfriend, a disappointing outcome of a work project, and a critical comment made by a friend. In each instance, the therapist asks George to describe the emotions that arose, and to note how those emotions manifested as sensations in his body. George realizes that, in each instance, he has been undermined by the same emotions and bodily feelings that engulfed him during his lunch with his coworkers. The therapist asks George if these situations also stimulate the same perception of himself as an unlikable outsider. George realizes that this is the case.

At this point, the therapist tells George about the amygdala regions of the brain, an area that mediates the storage of old painful memories. This type of memory has an emotional component, and also an imagery component that neurobiologists sometimes refer to as an ‘implicit memory’. In George’s case, the heaviness in his chest, the sick feeling in his stomach and the weak feelings in his body represent the emotion component. The image component is of himself as a hopeless outsider, a loser.

When his therapist asks George to focus his attention on the imagery, and especially the feelings in his body that constitute his script, George finds his mind wandering back to times when as a child he was ridiculed by his older brothers,  and times when his mother would swat him with the remonstration, “If you don’t stop crying I will give yo something to cry about”.  George realized that these were the early situations where George was first learning the feelings and self-negating imagery that now arose as his script. The feeling and imagery of those times were the same feelings and imagery that he now feels when his depression and anxiety are activated.
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The problematic influence of George’s amygdala is not unusual. The amygdala has been identified as playing a central role in a variety of diagnoses including anxiety disorders and depressive disorders, and we can assume that it is a primary player in many sub-clinical psychological problems. Characteristics of amygdala-mediated emotion memories closely parallel hallmark characteristics of psychological problems:

  • An emotion memory, when activated, produces an emotional reaction that is usually inappropriate to immediate circumstances. (Most psychological problems include inappropriate feelings and moods.)
  • Emotion memories are activated without conscious awareness, so that a person has no idea that what he or she is experiencing is actually a type of memory. (Psychological problems appear to arise without rhyme nor reason.)
  • When such a memory is activated, it inhibits some of the reality-testing regions of the brain  – for example, areas found in the prefrontal cortex – leading a person to wrongly assume that the imagery from the times when the memory was being formed represents an accurate depiction of what is happening now. A person’s experience (using George’s words) “seems like it is true, and even when I think that I might be distorting things, my mind keeps tricking me, re-convincing me that I really am an unattractive loser whom nobody will find loveable.” (Most psychological problems are characterized by unrealistic negative thoughts.)
  • Emotion memories are very robust—i.e. very durable. They can remain latent, or repeatedly activated for a lifetime. (Psychological problems left untreated tend to recur or persist.)
  • Given the right circumstances, emotion memories are very easily activated. (Ditto for many psychological problems.)

(Click here for a scholarly description of amygdala scripts including research citations.)

 

Furthermore, the emotion component and the belief component of an emotion memory combine to set the stage for how one behaves (e.g. George’s irritability and his isolating behavior). In explaining this to clients, my colleagues and I have adopted the term “amygdala script” – a more manageable shorthand for the rather cumbersome moniker ‘amygdala-mediated cognitive/emotional/behavioral memory complex’! The term allows George and his therapist to refer to his “amygdala script” or more often, simply his “script”. It becomes the focal point for most of their therapeutic work together. Click here to learn about five healing principles that research into brain functioning suggests for streamlining self-help and psychotherapeutic tools. The book, What Freud Didn’t Know: A Three–Step Practice for Emotional Well-Being through Neuroscience and Psychology (Rutgers University Press 2009, by Tim Stokes) has a much more detailed description of the concept of Amygdala Scripts and how anyone can utilize this concept to enhance psychological well-being. Or consider attending one of our seminars or making a Skype appointment with Dr. Stokes

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