Your amygdala is a small part of your brain, but it has a big job. It’s a major processing center for emotions. It also links your emotions to many other brain abilities, especially memories, learning and your senses. When it doesn’t work as it should, it can cause or contribute to disruptive feelings and symptoms.
Your amygdala is a small, almond-shaped structure inside of your brain. It’s part of a larger network in your brain called the limbic system. When it comes to your survival, your amygdala and limbic system are extremely important. These are parts of your brain that automatically detect danger. They also play a role in behavior, emotional control and learning.
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Fear is the main emotion that the amygdala is known to control. That’s why your amygdala is so important to survival. It processes things you see or hear and uses that input to learn what’s dangerous. If you encounter something similar in the future, your amygdala will cause you to feel fear or similar emotions.
However, research shows that the amygdala contributes to more than just anxiety or fear. It also plays a role in the following:
Your amygdala is part of your temporal lobe. It’s a paired structure, meaning you have two of them, one on each side of your brain (experts refer to both using the singular form of the word). Your amygdala sits near several structures that carry information from your senses, especially smell (which is why scents can connect strongly to emotions and memories). Your amygdala also connects to brain areas that process vision and hearing.
Vertically, your amygdala is nearly level with your eyes. If you touch your fingertip to the temple of your head (just above the joint where your jawbone connects to your skull) and point directly toward the temple on the opposite side of your head, you’re pointing at your amygdala or very near it. It’s nearly halfway between the center of your brain and skull (more toward the center).
The amygdala gets its name from its shape. “Amygdala” comes from the Greek word for “almond.” Most brain tissue is pinkish-beige when there’s blood circulating through it (it looks gray without blood circulating). The amygdala is slightly darker in color than the surrounding brain tissue.
The amygdala is small, though its size can vary slightly depending on the overall size of your brain and other factors. The average amygdala is about the size of a shelled peanut.
Your brain tissue, including the amygdala, consists mainly of:
Neurons bundle together into fibers. Those fibers bundle together to form nuclei. Your amygdala consists of 13 nuclei in total.
Most conditions that can affect or involve your amygdala are psychiatric (mental health-related) or neurological (brain-related). Many amygdala-affecting conditions fall under both categories because disruptions in brain function commonly affect your mental health.
Mental health conditions can include (but aren’t limited to) the following:
Brain-related conditions that can involve the amygdala include (but aren’t limited to) the following:
Signs and symptoms of conditions affecting your amygdala vary widely depending on the underlying condition. Symptoms can involve emotional changes or automatic body process shifts because of those emotions. Some examples of process shifts include:
Other symptoms are also possible. If you know you have a condition that affects your amygdala, you can talk to your healthcare provider about what you’re concerned about or experiencing. They can help you identify symptoms you should watch for and guide you on what you can do about them.
If you don’t know you have a condition that affects your amygdala but think you might have one, you should also see a healthcare provider. They can run tests and diagnose any issues they find. They can also guide you on possible treatments and ways you can manage your symptoms.
Several imaging and diagnostic tests can check for issues affecting your amygdala. Some examples include (but aren’t limited to):
Other tests are also possible, depending on your symptoms or what your healthcare provider suspects might be causing them. Your provider can tell you more about possible tests, which ones they recommend and why.
There aren’t any treatments that specifically help the amygdala. Instead, treatments target specific symptoms or conditions related to it.
Treatments can vary widely and include:
A treatment that helps one condition may not help others (or could even make some conditions worse). Your healthcare provider is the best source of information about possible or recommended treatments.
You can do several things to take care of your brain, including your amygdala. They include:
One particularly valuable ability your amygdala has is to skip processing steps related to your senses. For example, if you hear a familiar, dangerous sound, your amygdala immediately sends emergency signals to make you react before other areas of the brain process what the sound was. That’s why sudden loud sounds can cause the acoustic startle reflex, which makes you jump or flinch.
That effect can also take a more extreme form: The “amygdala hijack” or “emotional hijack.” Hollywood movies often depict a law enforcement officer commandeering someone’s car in an emergency. An amygdala hijack is when your amygdala takes control of your body to protect you from danger.
This effect is helpful in dangerous situations, activating your fight-or-flight response so you can protect yourself. But it can also contribute to mental health conditions like PTSD, especially when it mistakenly interprets things happening around you as signs of danger.
Amygdala damage disrupts your ability to feel fear or learn from it. While that might sound like a good thing, fear can be valuable. It’s how you learn to spot danger and protect yourself.
If you suspect you have damage or a problem affecting your amygdala, you should talk to a healthcare provider. They can help determine if there’s an issue, run tests to look for damage to your amygdala or refer you to a specialist who can help further.
Like many functions in your brain, your amygdala isn’t something you can control directly. You need it for many reasons, not just fear. But it can disrupt your life if it causes excessive fear or anxiety, or causes those too frequently.
Some things you can do to help counter the effects of anxiety, fear or panic include:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Your amygdala is one of the first parts of your brain to react to danger, making it a key part of surviving and keeping yourself safe from harm. It also plays a role in positive emotions, learning, memory and more. Understanding how your amygdala works can clue you in if there’s an issue with your brain or mental health. That way, you can live without worrying about fear taking over your life and keeping you from doing the things you enjoy.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/11/2023.
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