Last weekend, on our way through upstate New York to get a Christmas tree, my teenagers and I stopped in a small, claustrophobic dog shelter.
“Stopping by” dog shelters impulsively often results in new dogs, so it is ill-advised.
Inside a cramped space smaller than my living room, clearly stressed and likely neurotic, large dogs were throwing themselves against the gates of their kennels. Like free runners they ran up the concrete walls, propelled themselves against the gate with a crash, back to the ground and back up the wall again.
It was loud — really loud — with growling and barking and cage smashing.
I have three dogs, even at one time had four. But here’s what happened: the sound and sight of these dogs set my limbic system, the part of the brain that controls emotions and behavior, on fire.
This environmental stressor signaled “danger!” and the cue was sent to my amygdala, which sent out the “fight or flight” response. The amygdala, Greek for “almond,” is a similarly shaped region that controls emotion, especially fear.
The “fight or flight” response is a sequence of internal processes that protects us in a dangerous situation, preparing our bodies for struggle or escape. (4)
My ventromedial prefrontal cortex or vmPFC, the higher level thinking place in the brain, received the message, and performed crisis management. I could then observe, “The cages are locked. The dogs are just excited by visitors. Even in the unlikely chance one of them breaks out, nothing is likely to happen. I like dogs.” (1)
My hippocampus, the part of the brain that forms and stores new memories, joined in and I was reminded of my fond experiences growing up with large dogs (and the lollypop aggression of my diminutive Jack Russell).
All of this brain functioning enabled me to stay long enough for my daughter to fall in love with a brown dog named Samantha. I left calm, in one piece, and dog-free.
This is the normal response to an environmental stressor.
In people with post-traumatic stress disorder, there is a breakdown in communication between these regions in the brain, and therein lies the difficulty.