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3 Essential Oils for the Amygdala

By Jodi Cohen

I struggle with chronic anxiety.

And conventional anxiety management strategies – like pharmaceutical drugs – not only do not seem to help, but seem to make me feel worse or cause other issues.

So for years, I have crash test dummied myself trying different natural tools – including several Vibrant Blue Oils blends – that help me function on a daily basis.  They work incredibly well for normal stresses and anxiety triggers.

This week is not normal.  Sunday marks the 5 year anniversary of my 12 year old son Max’s death in a car accident.  Anniversaries are always tricky for me. My body not only keeps score, as Bessel van der Kolk explained in his amazing book, it seems track specific dates even when my brain forgets.  The 27th of the month is always a tough day – Max passed away on August 27, 2018.  Then 6 months later to the day, my father passed away on March 27, 2019.  There are days when my daughter or I just don’t feel right and our brains are not even registering why.  Then we look at the calendar and notice it is the 27th of the month and it all makes sense.

Over the years, I have created a super charge anxiety support strategy for those heavy emotional bleeding days where the intensity of my anxiety feels exceptionally paralyzing.   On those days, I have learned to focus not only on calming my (1) vagus nerve to activate my calming parasympathetic nervous system, (2) my adrenal glands to calm anxiety provoking hormones like cortisol, but also to travel upstream to my (3) limbic system to help my limbic system and particularly my amygdala, which I believe is ground zero for triggering maladaptive anxiety responses.

 

What is Your Amygdala?

Your amygdala is a tiny collection of cells at the base of the brain – frequently referred to as the emotional center of the brain – that identifies and assesses potential threats.

It monitors incoming signals from your 5 senses and initiates the brain processes that create both fear and anxiety. It has long been known that animals without amygdala lack appropriate fear responses. For example, rats who had their amygdala removed cuddled up with and showed no fear in the presence of cats — one of their natural predators.

Research on Amygdala Activity, Fear, and Anxiety: Modulation by Stress details how the amygdala can either modulate or when maladaptive, over-activate your fear, and resulting anxiety, response.

Here’s how the amygdala creates anxiety. When your amygdala senses potential danger or detects a threat in the environment, it connects to your prefrontal cortex to help interpret and assess and respond to the potential threat.

If your amygdala is aggressively firing danger detection signals and your prefrontal cortex is under-functioning and not properly inhibiting those fears, it can present as anxiety or panic attacks, both of which  keeps you on alert to potential or imminent danger.   In essence, when your survival “fight or flight” responses are not inhibited, you don’t feel safe and you feel chronically anxious.  This is known as an “amygdala hijack”, a state of chronic anxiety and overwhelm where every potential threat illicits an emotional response.

For example, if you are hiking in the woods and think you see a snake on the ground, your prefrontal cortex assesses the situation before your amygdala reacts.  If your prefrontal cortex determines that the snake is actually a stick, your amygdala calms down and you don’t over react.  If your amygdala  is hijacked, you will assume that every stick is a snake and constantly over-react to even minor threats.

This exaggerated amygdala reactivity can present as anxiety, impulsive aggression, personality disorders and contribute to chronic health conditions like chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia or multi-chemical sensitivity which are often associated with an amygdala hijack, a maladaptive response to stress. To be more specific, your flight or fight response is healthy and adaptive as it can help you prepare to meet and respond in the face of danger. Sadly, when the flight or fight response persists in the absence of danger it becomes maladaptive, contributing to chronic anxiety.  In other words, anxiety is a persistent feeling of being at risk when there is no imminent danger. Amygdala hijack contributes to persistent anxiety.

 

How Does the Amygdala Contribute to Anxiety?

When your amygdala senses potential danger, it sends a signal to another part of the brain called your hypothalamus.  The hypothalamus, in turn, sends a signal through the pituitary gland to the adrenal glands which then secrete stress hormones — like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol — to trigger a stress response.  The bodily changes that are generated by adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol include increased heart rate and rapid breathing along with a tunnel vision hyper focus on the danger at hand, which you may experience as anxiety related worry or fear.  It also shuts down access to the inhibitory part of your brain – your prefrontal cortex.

To break it down even further, when you are overwhelmed with actual or perceived stressors:

  1. Your amygdala– a primitive part of your brain that processes emotional reactions and memories related to threats – signals danger.
  2. Your hypothalamus signals your endocrine system (pituitary and adrenal glands) and your autonomic nervous system to mount a physical response to danger.
  3. Your “fight-or-flight” sympathetic nervous system is activated, preparing your body to respond to a threat.
  4. Hormones are released, including cortisol, norepinephrine, endogenous opioids, and oxytocin.
  5. Norepinephrine floods your prefrontal cortex, turning off your ability to access logical reasoning, rational decision-making and higher-level regulation of thoughts and emotions.
  6. As the brain prioritizes “fight or flight” survival and routes blood flow toward the arms and limbs to support survival, blood drains from the prefrontal cortex, diminishing your ability to think clearly, focus on tasks, or problem solve as the reptilian brain focuses on survival and escape.
  7. As your prefrontal cortex holds circuitry that can inhibit amygdala-driven anxiety, helping you maintain emotional balance.  Unfortunately, when your amygdala kicks into high gear (known as amygdala hijack), your prefrontal cortex goes offline, interfering with your ability to calm chronic anxiety and fear.

The key to unraveling this anxiety cascade is to calm your amygdala and activate your prefrontal cortex so you can more clearly assess the potential threat, determine whether or not it is truly a danger and respond logically and reasonably.

Strong emotions like fear, anger or overwhelm causes your amygdala to override (or hijack) your logical brain and trigger the full fight-or-fight response. As a result, we overreact or under-react and spiral into anxiety and overwhelm.

READ THIS NEXT: The Science of Overwhelm

 

Essential Oils for the Amygdala

Your sense of smell has direct access to the amygdala in the limbic lobe of the brain which is physically located near the olfactory bulb.

In fact, on a physical level, only two synapses separate your amygdala from your olfactory nerve.  No other sensory system has this kind of direct and intense contact with the neural substrates of your brain’s emotional control center, also known as your limbic system.  Your other four senses, including sound, sight, taste and touch must travel to other regions of the brain first, before reaching your limbic system.

Smell travels through your olfactory system to your hypothalamus a region of your brain that acts as your hormonal control center, by way of your amygdala in your limbic system.  When you smell an essential oil for the hypothalamus, it stimulates your hypothalamus to release hormones that trigger a rapid emotional response, directly impacting how you feel and how you function.

Your brain’s rapid response to smell based stimuli like essential oils is best explained by research which estimates your sense of smell to be 10,000 times more acute than your other senses. Once registered, scent stimuli travel more quickly to the brain than do either sight or sound.

Shifting your focus by engaging your senses, such as your sense of smell, also helps distract you out of an internal state of distress, thereby lessening its intensity and the intensity of your responses to others.  This allows you to feel safe and access more possibilities and options.

Your sense of smell is also tied to you breathing.  Deep inhalations and exhalations both help you focus on your breathing, taking time to slowly inhale and exhale – while inhaling essential oils – can help you connect to your mind and body to remind you that you are safe, and not needing to respond to danger.

Research on “Mindful attention to breath regulates emotions via increased amygdala-prefrontal cortex connectivity” found that mindful breathing techniques help modulate the impact of your amygdala on your prefrontal cortex so that your ability to respond in a calm and thoughtful way is better integrated during emotional stressful situations.

The research found that mindful breathing “down-regulates activation in the amygdala and increases its integration with prefrontal regions”, rendering it effective in “regulating aversive emotions.”

Essential oils can be powerful tools to help focus attention on inhalation and mindful breathing.

 

3 Essential Oils for the Amygdala

Calming your amygdala’s hair-trigger reaction helps to calm and reduce emotional outbursts.  This begins by helping you feel safe.

1. Parasympathetic®

Your sympathetic “fight or flight” state turns on when survival and safety are threatened.

After a danger or perceived risk passes, you should ideally shift out of sympathetic “fight or flight” and restore your sense of safety which allows your body to recover and heal after a demanding physiological and psychological event.

When we are stuck in a cycle of sympathetic dominance – and not activating your parasympathetic nervous system –  your body’s alert mechanism for survival remains on high and you can become trapped in a perception that you are not safe, which lays the groundwork for anxiety.

When you are able to shift out of the high alert state into a mental and emotional space of safety, your mind can relax, allowing you to calm your emotional state, expand your focus and clam anxiety.

You might think of the parasympathetic response as the brakes on the sympathetic response, which in turn puts the brakes on anxiety. The sympathetic system is employed in states of fear. The parasympathetic system is triggered by a sense of safety.

The parasympathetic system restores a sense of safety and balance which calms the brain and the body by activating your parasympathetic nervous system helps to inhibit anxiety, according to research which found that – when stimulated, your vagus nerve releases anti-anxiety chemicals that contribute to faster recovery time from illness, injury, stress, and emotional trauma.

Research titled “Fear and anxiety take a double hit from vagal nerve stimulation” documents how activating your parasympathetic nervous system via vagus nerve stimulation helps to quell anxiety and fear.

What’s more, when stimulated, your vagus nerve releases the neurotransmitter Acetylcholine which calms anxiety by relaxing the smooth muscles in your artery walls, dilating the arteries, and slowing your heartbeat. It also may enhance memory consolidation and enhancement which may help with the processing of fear memories, which helps inhibit exaggerated fear expression, like anxiety. (read more about Acetylcholine).

Your vagus nerve helps your autonomic nervous system communicate fear and danger information to your amygdala. In simple terms, the vagus nerve detects the release of the stress hormone epinephrine which acts as a “something important just happened” signal that is communicated to other fear centers in the brain. Activation or inhibition of this signal “can enhance or decrease the rate of fear extinction.  By enhancing fear extinction while quelling anxiety, vagal stimulation delivers a double hit against maladaptive fear. This may make vagal stimulation particularly useful in cases where severe anxiety prevents effective exposure therapy.”

Applying Parasympathetic® behind your earlobe on your mastoid bone helps you drop into the “rest and digest” parasympathetic state, alerting your body and your amygdala that the danger has passed so it can stop over reacting.

 

2. Hypothalamus™

While the amygdala is the emotion center of the brain, the hypothalamus is charge of your ability to change your emotional response and emotional reactivity.  Supporting your hypothalamus can often help fix downstream hormonal and endocrine issues that impact your emotional reactivity, especially related to anxiety.  The direct pathway from the olfactory system to the hypothalamus can also be used to help return your hypothalamus to balance.

Essential oils may help balance the various feedback loops to regulate the production of cortisol, including the hypothalamus and the adrenal glands – part of the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis – to ensure that they are not chronically activated or dysfunctioning which can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels.

In response to stress, your hypothalamus triggers your adrenal glands to release the stress hormone cortisol until your hormones reach the levels that your body needs, and then a series of chemical reactions known as the negative feedback loop begins to switch them off.  In other words, when the hypothalamus receives the signal that cortisol levels in the body are sufficient, it signals the adrenals to stop releasing cortisol.  So long as the hypothalamus is able to correctly send and receive signals, cortisol levels in the body should return to balance.

Hypothalamus™ blend contains a proprietary blend of organic essential oils, including  Patchouli and Frankincense, which are high in sesquiterpenes.  Research shows that sesquiterpenes are able to cross the blood-brain barrier and have been found to increase oxygen around receptor sites near the hypothalamus because they are so small they are capable of penetrating deeply into your brain and carrying oxygen molecules into your brain tissue to help your brain heal. Sesquiterpenes also specifically have an effect on our emotional center in the hypothalamus, helping us remain calm and balanced.

To help return the hypothalamus and the amygdala to the balance, apply 1 drop of Hypothalamus™ to the forehead right above the third eye (right above the nose between eyebrows and hair line) up to 6 times daily.

 

3. Adrenal®

Anxiety triggers the release of stress hormones to fight or flee and with it, your need for energy in the form of blood sugar or glucose.  This emergency fuel is released from your adrenal glands in the form of stress hormones such as cortisol.

Your adrenals are small, triangular-shaped glands secrete cortisol to regulate energy production and storage, control blood sugar, immune function, heart rate, muscle tone, and other processes that enable you to rapidly respond to stress.  The health and resilience of the adrenals (along with the hypothalamus and hippocampus) help to determine our tolerance to stress.

Balancing the adrenal glands with Adrenal® can help calm these hormones and with them the anxiety symptoms   More specifically, essential oils can help lower cortisol levels. Research consistently finds that inhalation of essential oils, like the study which looks at Lavender and Rosemary, that essential oils decrease cortisol levels. A similar study found that participants who inhaled essential oils demonstrated considerably reduced salivary cortisol concentrations than those who did not.  More specifically, in the 4-week study, researchers found that anxious and stressed hypertensive patients who inhaled essential oil blends experienced “considerably reduced serum cortisol and anxiety levels compared to the control and placebo groups.”

Adaptogen herbs help naturally lower high cortisol levels in several key ways. Similarly to adaptogen herbs, essential oils are also helpful for fighting stress and balancing hormones. Essential oils, including lavender, myrrh, frankincense and bergamot, contain potent, active ingredients that have been shown to naturally lower cortisol, reduce inflammation, improve immunity, and help with sleep and digestive functions.

Inhaling essential oils is thought to help improve your body’s stress response by toning down the activity of your sympathetic nervous system and increasing the activity of your parasympathetic nervous system.  It is believed that the linalool and linalyl acetate naturally present in lavender may act as a mild sedative  and stimulate the participants’ parasympathetic nervous system.

To help keep your adrenals balanced and not over releasing cortisol, apply 1- 2 drops of the Adrenal® on the adrenal glands (lower mid-back, one fist above the 12th rib on each side) upon waking, before bed and throughout the day as needed.  You can find more information on Adrenal® blend here.

Smelling Adrenal® though the left nostril or applying to the adrenal glands (on the lower mid-back, one fist above the 12th rib on each side). Dilute to start or if any redness occurs.

 

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References:

 

About The Author

Jodi Cohen

Jodi Sternoff Cohen is the founder of Vibrant Blue Oils. An author, speaker, nutritional therapist, and a leading international authority on essential oils, Jodi has helped over 50,000 individuals support their health with essential oils.