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Making friends with Amy Gdala

Find out how relating differently to our stress response can help calm the mind.

Have you ever thought about personifying your stress response? I have taken to calling it Amy Gdala after the two almond shaped structures in the brain thought to orchestrate the fight/flight/freeze response.

Amy's role is to protect us but sometimes we enable her to get carried away as this experience from my past demonstrates.

What happened?

A long time ago, before I learned about mindfulness, I was taken over by a sense of foreboding and dread for about two weeks.

The feeling slowly crept up on me.

To start with I just felt unsettled and my mood flattened. Not long after various thoughts started to circle in my mind and intrude on my day. Mainly about not being good enough.

As the feeling grew in intensity I was often on the verge of tears and once after work got into my car, broke down and howled. I couldn’t seem to shake it.

I was punch-drunk with negative thinking.

I could see these thoughts arising. I knew it was an old, deep, auto-track so tried to counter it with logic but nothing I tried would move me on.

I was paralysed.

Then one morning I was walking to work fretting on how to break this emotion’s hold when I noticed the blueness of the sky and the brightness of the morning.

I stopped. I breathed. I smiled.

The fear and anxiety that had had hold of me literally vanished and I walked into work no longer overshadowed.

Unknowingly I had used present moment awareness to calm my body and mind.

The role of AmyGdala

The fight/flight/freeze response associated with the Amygdala is a hardwired survival mechanism.

Although very useful when threatened by things that can literally kill us, in modern life it is triggered whenever our sense of safety or sense of self is threatened.

We can feel the response happening inside of us, as the body is readied for action. The body becomes tense, heartbeat and breathing rates increase and our stomach churns.

We are put on high-alert.

Readied for survival, our cognitive powers are switched off; turning us into reactors. No wonder I couldn’t think my way out with logical arguments.

Amy continues to be alarmed, if we keep thinking in fearful ways.

Unfortunately the feeling of danger we sense in the body reinforces the thinking that we're not safe.

It's a thinking-feeling feedback loop. The more time we spend in distressing thoughts, the more we go down into Amy's bunker.

Until we feel safe or the mind finds something more urgent or interesting to think about, we will be kept in Amy's dugout.

Turning the alarm off with mindfulness

When I had stopped to pause and notice my surroundings; the blueness of the sky, the brightness of the morning I was totally present with the experience.

To drink in the beauty of the moment I had stopped fretting and let go of worrying thoughts. This provided just enough of a break to dial down the body's alarm system and quieten Amy.

It is thought that 90 seconds is all it takes.


Amy is your first responder. She is here to help but because she operates automatically she is off and running long before our conscious mind can engage.

We are wired to Amy so we need to make friends with her; curiously amie is French for friend.

Taking regular mindful pauses in our day can help us notice when Amy is reacting and offers a means to put distance between us and worried thoughts, break the negative feedback loop and bring the system back into balance.

Take care of you.

Related: Learn how to switch from stressed to stillness, from chaos to calm using Benson's Relaxation Technique

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