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The Science of Overwhelm

By Jodi Cohen

Do you ever feel overwhelmed?  Like you are juggling more than you can handle and maybe don’t even know where to start or how to prioritize your energy?

In talking to clients, family and friends, overwhelm seems to be the predominate emotion these days  – high-stress, high-demand situations seem to overwhelm us, degrading our attention, our productivity and our internal sense of peace and calm

The more you are able to understand and recognize overwhelm and what is happening in the body and the brain when you feel overwhelmed, unfocused or struggled with staying on task, the easier it is to shift out of overwhelm.


What Happens in the Brain with Overwhelm

When we are overwhelmed with fear, real or imagined, your access to the part of your brain that helps you focus and problem solve – your prefrontal cortex – shuts down so that areas of the brain that support survival, like your limbic system and sympathetic nervous system, take over.

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 fight-or-flight” sympathetic nervous system is activated, preparing your body to respond to a threat.
  3. Hormones are released, including cortisol, norepinephrine, endogenous opioids, and oxytocin.
  4. Norepinephrine floods your prefrontal cortex, turning off your ability to access logical reasoning, rational decision-making and higher-level regulation of thoughts and emotions.
  5. As the brain prioritizes “fight or flight” survival and routes blood flow toward 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.
  6. As your prefrontal cortex holds circuitry that can inhibit amygdala-driven overwhelm, 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 overwhelm and paralysis.

The key to unraveling overwhelm and paralysis 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 in overwhelm.

Because it is in charge of our survival, the limbic brain is capable of overriding the rest of our brain and taking over in times of perceived danger.

Calming the amygdala allows your thinking brain to take over and give you the time and capacity to think it through, instead of jumping into action.

Calming Amygdala Hijack

The term “amygdala hijack” was coined by Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman to describe the state where your prefrontal cortex – your thinking brain – cannot inhibit or suppress your emotional response from your amygdala – your emotional brain.  This contributes to a chronic state of anxiety and overwhelm that prevents you from reacting appropriately to the stressors in your life.


Your amygdala is a tiny collection of cells at the base of the brain (known as the primitive or reptilian brain that identifies and assesses potential threats.

It monitors incoming signals from your 5 senses.  As part of the limbic system, it’s responsible for giving emotions meaning, memory, and associations. When it senses potential danger, 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 overwhelm to keep you on alert to potential or imminent danger.

Prefrontal Cortex

Your prefrontal cortex, located in the front part of your brain behind your forehead, supports your executive function, managing rational thinking, logic, planning, and decision-making.  It helps assess threats and determines your response based on reason, rather than emotion.

Its ability to help your brain sort through stimulation and decide what information is relevant and what to ignore is the mechanism for calming your emotional response and improving your emotional intelligence.


Essential Oils to Calm Amygdala Hijack

Essential oils can help calm overwhelm by both enhancing:

  1. Your prefrontal cortex to better receive and respond to threat signals
  2. Your parasympathetic state.  When you feel safe, your amygdala calms down and lowers output of perceived threats.

When you use stimulatory essential oils to improve blood flow and the healthy function of your prefrontal cortex, while simultaneously calming your amygdala and your fear response, you are able to enhance your mental and physical function, calm anxiety and depression and accelerate healing.

Calming physical and mental overwhelm helps reduce background noise that stresses your system and burns through your energy reserves, allowing you to intentionally and calmly assess incoming stimulus and determine your response.  When you feel safe and can assess a situation from a calm and grounded place with healthy prefrontal cortex function, you often make better choices and avoid problems.  This allows you to feel calm, safe and drops your body in the best state for physical, mental and emotional healing.

Essential Oils for the Amygdala

Smell is the only sense that does not travel to the thalamus (the relay center for all sensory signals) before accessing the forebrain. All other senses send signals through the thalamus first, which then sends the signals to your amygdala before forwarding it to your prefrontal cortex.

Calming your amygdala’s hair-trigger reaction helps to calm and reduce emotional outbursts.  This begins by helping you feel safe.  Your sympathetic “fight or flight” state turns on when survival and safety are threatened.  Activating your parasympathetic “rest and digest” state can enhance your sense of safety.  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.

Essential Oils for the Pre-Frontal Cortex

Essential Oils offer the most direct path to your frontal lobe.

Your olfactory nerve—also known as cranial nerve #1—travels directly to your frontal lobe through a bone known as the cribriform plate at the top of your sinuses.

Supporting the optimal function of your prefrontal cortex helps to calm your response to fear stimulus and unravel and heal conditioned fear responses.  Healthy function of your prefrontal cortex supports healthy connection to your amygdala which helps you maintain conscious control over your anxiety and overwhelm.

Research backs this up.  Functional brain imaging show engagement of the prefrontal cortex in suppression (voluntary inhibition of reaction to emotional stimuli) and reappraisal (cognitive re-interpretation of evocative stimuli to reduce negative affect)  “The recruitment of these frontal regions occurs when subjects engage in active self-regulation and is associated with modulation of amygdala reactivity,”  a region of the brain critical to the experience of negative emotions. “Evidence of frontal involvement in the regulation of emotion is further supported by imaging studies in which similar frontal regions are observed to be important for the control of emotion-related behavior.”

Apply essential oils blends like Focus™, Attention™ or Brain Boost™ to the following reflex points on the forehead to stimulate the prefrontal cortex:

  1. Inside of the eyebrows,
  2. Over the temples and
  3. Base of the hairline on both the right and left hemisphere of the forehead

It’s hypothesized that when we are under stress, blood goes to the back of our brain, where the past is stored. Placing a hand, or appropriate essential oils, over these points on the forehead, helps shift the energy and blood flow from the more emotional mid‐brain areas to the area just below the forehead known as the prefrontal cortex which is associated with a calmer mind and rational, logical thinking.


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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.