Your Amygdala and Jesus: Setting Your Brain Free

amygdala

The amygdala, part of your limbic system, is responsible for the flight or fight impulse. For most of us, we simply think this means that some of us are fighters and others of us freeze like deer in the headlights. This grossly oversimplifies the complexity of our responses to danger. In actuality, we each develop a variety of responses to situations, both internal and external. And since our amygdala is often thought to be the seat of our anxiety, we should get to know that part of our brain.

In inner healing circles, we call the amygdala “the guardian”. Andrew Miller, who runs Heart Sync Ministries, really pioneered this way of approaching our guardians. Because they are responses developed when we were young, we often exhibit habitual and unexamined behaviors to keep us safe. And most of us have more than just a couple guardians. I have uncovered about seven in myself thus far.

The goal of any inner healing session is to remove obstacles that keep us from having a relationship with Jesus. If you have a hard time connecting relationally with Jesus, it may be in part because your internal guardians keep you from getting close. And remember, we are dealing with a part of you, so while some try to cast these guardians out, they aren’t going anywhere. In fact, you were created to have these protective survival responses.

The problem is that they don’t always respond appropriately. The amygdala, when left on its own, decides what is scary and what is not. In fact, doctors call the response of the amygdala to extreme emotions as the ‘amygdala hijack”. But the right and left brain need to have more input. For instance, if you grew up in a family that discouraged emotion, your amygdala may have learned to shut down emotion as dangerous. So numbness sets in and the stress of that contained emotion communicated itself in a variety of physical illnesses. If you suffered trauma as a child, your amygdala sectioned off your right brain or your emotional self in order to protect you from experiences that were too much.

So let me introduce you to some guardians and then show you how to introduce them to Jesus, who can heal and redeem this part of your brain. We want to have the mind of Christ in every part of our brain, not merely our analytical left brain.

  1. The fighter:

My fighter was pretty weak. In fact, she stood behind a door in the image in my mind. But the fighter in some is pretty fierce. Have a temper? That rage is often from your amygdala which is determined to keep you safe from some perceived threat.

  1. The blank:

This one works pretty strongly in me. When someone asks me how I am, my mind and emotions go completely blank. I imagine my face doesamygdala too. It is as if a curtain falls between me and my emotions. Due to trauma in my past, hiding feelings kept me from displaying any vulnerability towards my abuser.

  1. The critic:

This response works one of two ways. Either the harsh critique is directed at oneself or at others. If directed at oneself, the goal of the guardian is to distract us with pain that is not as terrible as the outside threat is perceived to be. It’s kind of like pinching ourselves to avoid feeling the sprained ankle. In reality, we are often spraining our ankles to avoid the pinch.

The criticism directed at others is a way of protecting oneself against the emotion of shame. It is easier to justify ourselves than to take face the pain of our failures, real or perceived.

  1. The wall:

This guardian is the great isolator. We allow a thick barrier to come between us and others in order to keep us from getting hurt. Some people seem unable to form deep connections. Having a wall for an amygdala may be the reason. While we do need boundaries to keep us away from toxic people, our amygdala sometimes labels safe people as dangerous.

  1. Invisibility:

amygdalaI definitely had an invisible girl inside. How this worked for me was that whenever I felt emotions, my whole face and body became separate from my heart. No one would ever guess that I was suffering agonies. I ached in silence on the inside. And I really couldn’t let anyone into that hurt. This kind of response can make emotional intimacy difficult.

  1. The freeze:

This one for me is also pretty strong. I simply do not respond to bad news. My blank goes into action and I display little or no emotional response. This makes me safe to tell bad things to. On the other hand, I often don’t know how I feel for several days.

Many more guardians exist from the desire to punish oneself to the guardian who just takes the hits to denial. And while their responses aren’t the greatest, they each are meant to serve a purpose. If you feel you have a guardian response that keeps you trapped in patterns of behavior, there is a way out.

In a recent prayer ministry time, I asked the young man to ask himself who one of his guardians was. He thought for a minute and the answer was the debater. Any time he felt threatened or insecure, he would resort to arguing over the silliest things. It made a relationship with him rather a chore. He knew that it was an issue since a recent girlfriend had left him over his incessant argumentation. He was arrogant and patronizing, she had said.

So I recognized the debater as a good part of this young man. After all, God had created him with a good brain and he had learned early that always being right kept him safe against critical parents. But his guardian part of his brain had not matured into learning how to have relationship. After all, intimacy is about sharing thoughts and emotions, not protecting oneself with being always right.

I asked the debater if he was willing to allow Jesus into this part of his mind and heart. After some hesitation, he was. Jesus is such a miraculous redeemer. He took that defensive debater and loved him and renamed him a lover of truth. Jesus invited that part of this young man’s heart to be in a relationship with Him and learn how to tell the truth in love. Jesus wanted to partner with him.

Jesus has done a similar work with my defenses. My invisible girl is now visible but her name is Meek. My fighter now has the name of Righteous Anger and she is learning how to feel and express anger appropriately, as Jesus did.  Participating in these kinds of exercises is a radical act of self-awareness. Being born again in the spirit is just the first step of the sanctification of the whole person. And Jesus loves your amygdala. He made it to keep you safe but only in a relationship with Him can it do its job well.

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Repentance and the Way of Neuroplasticity

 

 

 

6 Replies to “Your Amygdala and Jesus: Setting Your Brain Free”

  1. Your article here is so fascinating to me. I’ve never heard any of this before, but I believe God brought me to your post for a reason this morning. I see a lot of myself in your description of a critic, and hugely in your description of the wall. Where would someone look for more information on this topic, and how to work through it with the Lord? Thank you!

  2. Alice I love how you tie neuroscience to our faith. I always find your posts interesting and challenging and this did not disappoint. Thank you!

  3. susanhomeschooling says: Reply

    Wow, these are really interesting! “When someone asks me how I am, my mind and emotions go completely blank.” This one is especially true for me, since how I’m doing is so complicated. My mind just blanks out and I can’t think of anything at all.

  4. I love this! So thankful for Jesus and what He has done for us and what He does in us.

  5. Incredibly helpful as always, thanks Alice.
    If you grew up in a family that discouraged emotion, your amygdala may have learned to shut down emotion as dangerous… true of many of my generation.
    The Freeze…. absolutely the same response as you.
    I don’t know how I am feeling until something goes wrong in my body… it’s like my body has to tell my mind that there has been a trauma.
    So glad of the excellent teaching, Alice.

  6. I’d say the critic in me is most likely the strongest “guardian.”

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