Social Anxiety and the Amygdala Hijack

Share Button


A lot of our social anxiety is caused by an area in the brain called the amygdala. In many ways, the amygdala can be considered the “home of anxiety.”

Neuroscience research shows that the amygdala plays a big role in our emotional reactivity, especially our “fight-or-flight” response when the brain senses danger. Studies have found that an overactive amygdala often correlates with higher social anxiety and social phobia. In theory, a more active amygdala triggers increased feelings of fear, worry, uneasiness, or dread.

In a worst case scenario, our amygdala can be conditioned to have such a strong emotional response to a stimulus that it completely overrides our logical thinking or reason. We may rationally understand that a fear has no basis in reality, but the amygdala’s reaction is so strong that we feel this fear anyway.

Neuroscientist Daniel Goleman coined this phenomenon the amygdala hijack. Other researchers on emotion, like Joseph E. Ledoux, have further elaborated on this concept, describing it as when “emotional reactions and emotional responses can be formed without any conscious, cognitive participation… because the shortcut from thalamus to amygdyla completely bypasses the neocortex.”

The neocortex is usually associated with the conscious “thinking parts” of our brain, so when our fear response bypasses this region, then we often feel as though our emotions are emerging from a deeper part of our brains that lies outside of our conscious awareness.

The big lesson here is: Logical thinking is not always enough to overcome social anxiety.

Many people may try overcoming their social anxiety solely by reasoning inside their heads and trying to adopt healthy beliefs (and these can certainly help!), but they are rarely enough to fully rewire our brains in order to experience less anxiety.

Thankfully, there are other methods we can use to help change the structure and reactivity of our amygdala. Here are some of those options:

  • Medication. There are several effective drugs currently on the market that have shown to have positive results in changing the structure of the amygdala. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRIs), like Citalopram (Celexa), Escitalopram (Lexapro, Cipralex), Fluoxetine (Prozac), Paroxetine (Paxil), and Sertraline (Zoloft), have all shown to be effective in the treatment of social phobia. See a psychiatrist and they will help you determine if medication is right for you. Keep in mind, however, that there is some new research that shows medication should be a last resort when it comes to social anxiety.
  • Meditation. Daniel Goleman has theorized that meditation helps rewire connections between our amygdala and pre-frontal cortex. Our pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that causes us to stop and think about a situation; on the other hand, the amygdala is often seen as the opposite of this: it is more impulsive and it’s activity is more subconscious. However, by rewiring the connections between these two brain structures it is possible for us to exercise more conscious control over our emotional reactions. By engaging in weekly meditation, an individual can often develop stronger feelings of relaxation and equanimity, these are great combatants toward social anxiety.
  • Exposure Therapy. Exposure therapy is an important part of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that encourages individuals to gradually expose themselves more to social situations and thereby become more habituated to these kinds of environments. Often by engaging in more social situations we find that our previous fears and worries were actually unfounded. And when we give our amygdala new experiences to learn from (and rewire in response to), then our anxieties can often diminish overtime.
  • Minimize substance abuse. Abusing drugs and alcohol can often damage our amygdala to the point where we depend on these substances in order to lessen our anxiety and inhibitions. While alcohol can sometimes be a valuable social lubricant, we have to be careful not to train our brains to rely on these substances in order to function properly. Moderation is key here.
  • Cognitive Restructuring. Cognitive structuring (or “reframing”) is another important part of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy that can help diminish social anxieties and phobias. While it doesn’t affect the amygdala directly, it does affect other structures connected to the amygdala including the prefrontal cortex (a part of our brain responsible for conscious thinking and decision-making) and the hippocampus (which is responsible for memory formation). The goal of cognitive restructuring is to change our perspective and beliefs which can often reduce “contextual fear” – fear caused by certain attitudes and beliefs about ourselves and the world we live in. Interestingly enough, there is now direct evidence from neuroscience that Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy techniques like this can shrink the “fear center” in your brain.

As you can probably tell by now, your social anxiety can be managed with a wide array of different treatments and techniques. I and many others have found through personal experience that sometimes the very best treatment is to mix-and-match several of the above techniques.

Any one of the suggestions listed above can help your social anxiety and decrease the activity in your amygdala, but it’s often best to use a combination. You should give multiple solutions a fair chance, and by doing that you will increase your likelihood of improving your social anxiety in the long-term.

Let’s figure this social anxiety thing out together. Subscribe here and receive a free download of my guide “How to Meet New People:”

Comments are closed.