By: Robin Donaldson, Chief Operating Officer, Indiana Youth Services Association & NSPN Advisory Board member
What determines the individual responses in times of crisis? Why do some freeze and become incapable of responding while others seem to thrive and rise to the challenge in the face of threat? We can look to genetics and a person’s upbringing to determine the neural pathways established in the brain that dictate the varied ranges of response to crises.
In the center of the brain and seated in the limbic system lies a small structure known as the amygdala. The amygdala houses fearful or threatening memories and uses this information to access incoming information to determine potential threats and initiate the “fight or flight” response required to deal with those threats. While information from the amygdala can be sent to the prefrontal lobe for higher cognitive and emotional assessment, it is important to understand that the amygdala is designed to respond immediately to ensure survival.
Genetics will determine the initial sensitivity and response rate of the amygdala. Some individuals are prone to quick emotional responses due to the innate sensitivity of amygdala responsiveness influenced by levels of neurotransmitters and cellular structure. Early upbringing can either enhance or moderate this heightened sensitivity.
Early environment is crucial to the cellular development and connectivity of the amygdala because newborns enter the world unable to regulate their emotional responses. When responsive caregivers immediately respond to meet the needs of their newborn, they help establish neural pathways in the brain that allow the infant to begin to self-regulate and self-sooth in times of distress. Infants who have caregivers that are unresponsive lack the opportunity to establish these pathways for self-regulation. When caregivers are abusive, infants miss opportunities to self-regulate and the initial responsiveness of the amygdala is increased to respond to the threat. Neglectful and abusive environments heighten emotional responses and reactivity and all new information is processed against those threatening memories. An overactive amygdala results in increased anxiety, fear, distrust and mood disorders.
These early patterns generally persist throughout life. While intervention can help moderate the emotional response and change behavioral patterns, in times of crises or in unfamiliar situations we tend to revert to earlier patterns. Certain environmental features or characteristics and mannerisms of others can trigger old fearful memories and initiate the crisis response. Understanding how a person’s stress response was established can help predict their future behavior in crisis situations.
This blog post is the second in a three-part series on brain development. Click here to read the first blog, “General Brain Development.” Stay tuned for the final blog post on brain development!