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Mindful : April 2019
fight-or-flight response. Here’s the most direct one: You encounter something in your environment—a man running toward you with a knife, a car veering into your lane on the highway— and a part of your brain called the thalamus sends visual information directly to an almond-shaped struc- ture called the amygdala. That’s the control center for the fight-or-flight response. When the amygdala detects a threat, it triggers a surge of adrenaline and an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension—to prepare you to act. A few weeks ago, as I rode my bike home, I suddenly braked, turned my handles sharply to the left, and barely avoided being hit byacarthathadrunastop sign. I never saw it coming. But my amygdala did, and it may have saved my life. Here’s the modern glitch in that evolutionarily brilliant response: “ We don’t go into fight or flight just when we’re being chased by a bear,” says Adrienne Taren, a neuroscientist and emergency-room physician at the University of Okla- homa. “ We’re getting it every time our email pings or we’re sitting in traffic. Our amygdala is just going and going and going.” That constant barrage of low-level alarm is what we call stress. So where does anxiety come in? Because we’re such imaginative creatures, we can get stressed out by simply thinking about 54 mindful April 2019 neuroscience