The Brain’s Panic Button: the Amygdala at work in ME / CFS

4 Mar

How have you been? Have you managed to STRESS LESS? I think I have. Hope you have too. In this post I am going to continue my STRESS LESS theme.

I’m not a science geek by any stretch of the imagination. I’m not a science graduate, I didn’t even take a minor in a science subject. I took as little science at secondary school as I possibly could and dropped it as soon as I could! Science we can safely say is not one of my passions. However, the neuroscience and biochemistry of stress is science that I enjoy learning about. The simple reason for this is that it is relevant to me and my ME / CFS. To fully understand and appreciate the role stress plays in ME / CFS, you need a little science. So today I’m going to talk about, in as non-scientist way as possible, the neuroscience and biochemistry of stress in ME / CFS.


First off, let’s start with the brain. It seems like a good place to start.

The Triune Brain. Image source:

The Triune Brain. Image source:

According to the American physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean  the brain is made up of three different parts:

  1. The REPTILE brain: found in the brain stem, it controls our unconscious processes such as breathing, heartbeat and nervous system.
  2. The MAMMAL brain: the Limbic System which generates and regulates our emotions.
  3. The PRIMATE brain: including the frontal lobes which are unique to humans, it controls our creativity, spacial awareness and co-operation with others.

The part we are most interested in for our STRESS LESS purposes is the MAMMAL brain.


Image source:

Image source:

Within the mammal brain we find the Amygdala, which serves as the brain’s stress button. It controls our emotional response ie. whether we are stressed or whether we are serene and calm. The amygdala monitors the brain’s thinking and flips the flight/fight stress response switch when it deems it necessary.

Photo source: Flickr user Chester Zoo

Photo source: Flickr user Chester Zoo

So if we see a lion walking towards us, the amygdala will sound the alarm and our stress response will kick in.  A lion is a real and present danger. Our personal safety may well depend on the amygdala igniting the stress response and us responding accordingly.

However…the problem with the amygdala is that whatever it sees in our thoughts (our conscious awareness), it assumes is happening at that very moment. Presumably, this is why you can feel stressed by just watching a film where a person on screen is being chased by a lion. Brings a new meaning to the mindfulness concept of present moment awareness doesn’t it?


If you have ME / CFS you tend to (unconsciously) hazard check and you may think, ‘going to the shops might fatigue me’. This is a potential stressor and if we go back to our definition of stress, we can see why. You think you will feel worried and fatigued (a state of mental and/or emotional strain or tension) as a result of going to the shops (an adverse or demanding circumstance). The amygdala will see this stress as happening to you right now and your stress response will kick in, even though you’re still sat on sofa deciding whether or not to go to the shops!

So it is clear that if you have ME / CFS you (usually at any rate) have a problem with your stress response. It is hyperactive, perpetually alert, you’re constantly in the stress ‘i’m being chased by a lion’ mode. Without going into any detail I think it’s obvious how exhausting being on high alert can be, which is why stress has such a role to play in ME / CFS, hence why resetting and ‘rewiring’ our brains’ stress responses can be a treatment path for ME / CFS.

This is where I’m going to bring the science to an end for today. I think STRESS LESS fortnight is going to become STRESS LESS month as the more I delve into stress and ME / CFS the more I want to share about it. So next post I’ll pick up from where I’ve left off today and talk about what the stress response actually involves (the biochemistry of a stress response I suppose) and why being perpetually chased by a lion is really bad for your health!


4 Responses to “The Brain’s Panic Button: the Amygdala at work in ME / CFS”

  1. chris March 4, 2013 at 11:41 am #

    I am sooooo impressed with your site.
    It is very helpful and so full of interesting thoughts, ideas and yummy recipes.

  2. chris March 4, 2013 at 11:44 am #

    I am sooooo impressed with your site.
    It is very helpful and so full of interesting thoughts, ideas, relevant information and yummy recipes.

    • myjourneythrume March 4, 2013 at 5:22 pm #

      Thanks so much Chris, that’s so good to hear. Please share the site with anyone you know that it might be of interest to. Thanks for visiting!


  1. My Journey Thru M.E. Part 2: 2012 Some Ups, More Downs | my journey thru M.E. - December 3, 2014

    […] hopeful and buoyed that there was light at the end of the tunnel. I learnt huge amounts about the science behind ME/CFS, neuroplasticity and autonomic stress responses in […]

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