Tricking your Amygdala


I learned a new trick today, so I thought it might be helpful to pass along here. One of the challenges I have found in returning back to work is the increase in cognitive load on my brain (resulting in the aforementioned nasty headache.) The cognitive demands of staying home are nothing like those that I face in going back into the classroom. (As stimulating as the Ellen show might be!) As soon as you start to enjoy yourself doing the interesting parts of your job, all sorts of brain activity fires up, and through the instinctive nature of a part of the brain meant to protect you from harm, the amygdala, your brain goes into stress mode. It doesn’t have to be bad stress, just an increased demand for blood flow and attention. So, the trick I learned today is to fool the amygdala into thinking, “everything is just business as usual, nothing to worry about here…” This process can be called an ABC moment, taking a moment to follow these three steps:

  • A: Attention
  • B: Breathing
  • C: Count

Attention: This is hard to do but it is important to monitor your symptoms and catch the first inkling of a headache coming on. As soon as a whiff of pain catches your attention, you go into action with step two,  and shift your attention to your breathing.

Breathing: In a split second, with your awareness of headache pain, ask yourself a question: “Am I breathing in, or am I breathing out?” This sounds like a silly question, but you’re doing this to catch the amygdala off guard. Your body automatically breathes without you thinking, but if you draw your attention to your breath and consciously have to make an assessment (am I currently breathing in or out) you can distract the amydala with this focus on the present moment, and that gives you enough time to do step three, a counting breath.

Counting: This is one big breath, on a 4-8 count. Take one deep belly-breath with your mouth open, lasting for a count of four. You can do this starting in a bit of a slouching position, chin down, then breathe in, pushing your belly out, arching your back and rolling your head up while you breathe in to completely fill your lungs, almost like a gasp. Then, through slightly pursed lips, slowly relax your shoulders down and exhale for a count of 8.

You’ll only want to do this once as it will make you dizzy if you do it again, but catching your breath like this might just help you to stave off an increasing headache, not allowing it to take over your day. You can do this many times a day if it helps, whenever the headache sneaks up on you (just don’t hyperventilate and pass out!) I guess if you need to do it a lot, you’re rushing into your work too ambitiously, so pay attention to that too.

All credit for this technique has to go to the counsellor I’m seeing for my back-to-work resiliency program. I honestly did just learn this today, so I need to practice it myself, but I have a lot of support around me in this concussion experience, and I think it’s important to share everything I’m learning, especially for anyone who is trying to manage concussion recovery on their own.  Again, I’m not in any way medically qualified to offer advice, just sharing my experience, but I did try this myself today, and it helped.

Today’s photo: Sunset on Gambier Island, BC. Just something to help you to relax and take in a big breath today.

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