Autonomic Responses During an Intense Emotional Reaction

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Emotional flashbacks occur without sounds, sights, or scents and are characterized by improper and out-of-proportion feelings in response to a trigger. This psychological response is triggered by experiences in the person’s past rather than happenings in the person’s present.

Autonomic responses during an intense emotional reaction via the amygdala

Typically, the individual having the emotional flashback is unaware of the triggering incident that throws them into a vibrant whirl with sensations ranging from dread to deep sentiments of abandonment. These quick bursts of powerful emotions elicit a monster reaction from our amygdala, activating our autonomic nerve systems. As a result, we experience an extreme eruption of fight/flight and freeze responses. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls our most fundamental automatic processes, such as heart rate, hormone balance, respiration, and our body’s reaction to stressful circumstances.

How does the amygdala use SNS and PNS?

The ANS is divided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) prepares the body for the fight/flight/freeze reaction by secreting chemicals.

In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) relaxes once the threat has gone. The amygdala and autonomic nervous systems play significant roles in producing emotional flashbacks because they interact, putting the adult experiencing one battling back to the here and now from feelings that happened perhaps decades ago. In the 1920s, a scientist called Walter Cannon characterized the fight-or-flight reaction in his publications. When an animal is threatened, its instinct is to fight or flee. Like all animals, our body goes through physical and hormonal processes that determine how we will behave in life-threatening circumstances (McCorry, 2007).

How would the amygdala respond when we witness a snake?

When confronted with a threat to our existence, such as witnessing a snake slither across our feet, our receptor cells (our senses) are activated.

The example above exemplifies this: Josh gets startled when he feels a touch on his back. This causes our senses to transmit signals to the amygdala, a part of our brain that aids decision-making. The amygdala stimulates the hypothalamus via the ANS. The fundamental function of the hypothalamus is to convey information from the neurological system to the endocrine system. The hypothalami information encourages the pituitary gland to produce adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) into circulation. The production of ACTH hormone into the circulation increases the production of cortisol and epinephrine hormones (adrenaline). These hormones control bodily fear reactions (Öhman, 2005).

There is a song written about the Amygdala that talks about trauma and how the amygdala bursts with powerful emotions to elicit a monster reaction.

Check the following reference articles to learn more about autonomic responses during an intense emotional reaction.

McCorry, L. K. (2007). Physiology of the autonomic nervous system. American journal of pharmaceutical education, 71(4), 431-451.

Öhman, A. (2005). The role of the amygdala in human fear: automatic detection of threat. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 30(10), 953-958.

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