Everyone experiences anxiety occasionally. But not everyone suffers from anxiety. And that is more than a semantics-based difference.
Experiencing anxiety and anxious thoughts in response to life challenges and uncertainty is natural. It is absurd to try to control your anxious responses (although seeking to manage them is okay, and in fact what this post is about).
Suffering with anxiety is where anxiety and anxious thoughts influence our decisions – we’re unable to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. Another example of suffering, and an indicator of a hyperactive anxious response, is if you often find yourself in a state of ‘fight-or-flight’, i.e. you are regularly flooded with adrenaline as life happens. This raises stress levels, and puts you at risk of developing depression.
The good news is, we can manage anxiety.
And the starting place is appreciating how anxiety occurs.
Anxiety happens in the brain
Maybe it’s obvious but anxiety happens in your brain – not at the scene of the event or circumstance.
We know this because the same event can cause one person anxiety, whilst causing excitement in another. That is why managing anxiety isn’t about turning away from life (that will never work). Rather, it involves rewiring the anxious brain.Anxiety happens in the brain and so managing anxiety means rewiring the brain Click To Tweet
Much like love, anxiety has its own language. This language is helpful for cultivating that inner witness/observer that is so essential for being able to eventually adapt your anxious brain into a more resilient one.
This post gives an anxiety ‘glossary of terms’. The terms refer to the parts of the brain responsible for anxious responses and anxious thoughts, as well as the two forms of therapy that target them. It is based on the teachings of Catherine M Pittman and Elizabeth M Karle, in their brilliant book Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry.
The amygdala is the brain’s fear HQ. It is essential for understanding the body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ response, a hyper-aroused state that happens when we perceive a threat (characterised by sweaty palms, increased heart rate and blood pressure).
Unlike the part of the brain responsible for your personality which develops much later (around 25 years), your amygdala is ready and ‘online’ from birth. This is useful when it comes to understanding your involuntary emotional responses.The amygdala, or emotional brain, gets triggered involuntarily in response to external events and thoughts Click To Tweet
Your young, under-formed brain perceived threats that have not had the benefit of the neocortex’s influence (where reasoning and rational conscious thought happens). Those minor and major traumas (or memories) are etched into our psyches, and can be reactivated by things unfolding in the present. They can be triggered in response to our thoughts too. So that’s two ways that the emotional brain gets activated, causing us to experience anxiety.
Without awareness, the functioning of our amygdalas can mean that the past continues to affect our present and future, well into adulthood. And we cannot rationalise away these hold hurts in retrospect. The emotional memory just doesn’t work that way.
What we can do is strive to become aware of the triggers.
2. ‘Amygdala triggers’
An amygdala hijack is the process I just described above. It is where something external occurs, or you are pursuing a line of thought, which triggers emotional reactivity.
How can we know for sure it is our anxious brain responding? Because objectively annoying and distressing things do not tend to trigger anxiety, but rather cause low moods and sadness. It doesn’t feel like your survival is at stake.
Examples of ‘external’ triggers (i.e. non thought derived) are words and/or looks from people we love and, in more traumatic scenarios, smells, sights and sounds. They happen quickly and below the level of awareness for a lot of us.
The neocortex is where conscious thought happens. It isn’t totally formed until we are in our mid twenties.
The amygdala and the neocortex chatter away to eachother. There are more pathways from the amygdala to the neocortex though, then the other way around. Importantly, this means that the amygdala can override the neocortex. In other words, your involuntary emotional responses are a more powerful determinant of your experience than rational thought.
Because sufferers of anxiety usually have a combination of amygdala and cortex generated anxiety going on, it is unlikely you can ‘cure’ anxiety by logic and thought alone (hopefully a comforting thought). The amygdala always needs to be brought on board.The neocortex is indirectly responsible for anxiety by creating disturbing narratives for the amygdala Click To Tweet
Although the cortex isn’t responsible for those fight-or-flight responses directly, it does cause them indirectly. It does this through thoughts, which can trigger the amygdala’s fight-or-flight. This is how the two brains work together to create anxiety.
The cortex cannot create anxiety on its own. It needs the participation and collusion of the amygdala. When the amygdala is triggered by our thoughts, it isn’t as fast paced a process as when it is activated ‘directly’ through trigger situations.
Nonetheless, as the cortex conjures distressing scenarios, the amygdala buys in, and gets scared.
4. ‘Exposure-based therapy’
Exposure therapy is a technique whereby a person is exposed to the triggers as a way of reducing their impact. It sounds a bit cruel, but when we are exposed to feared objects or contexts without any danger, we can start to change that emotional memory and overcome anxiety.
The amygdala benefits from exposure-based therapies. It is how you eventually train your emotional memory to act despite fears.
5. ‘Cognitive behaviour therapy’
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based CBT, and Acceptance and Commitment therapy are forms of therapy that target the cortex. They help us to manage anxiety by changing us at the level of conscious thought.
Implementing the practices, which are based in mindfulness, takes willingness, perseverance, and sometimes accountability in the form of a therapist. But they can be very effective at disrupting your habitual thoughts and rewiring the cortex.
At a basic level, it is a process of questioning the cortex, whose reasoning is fallible.
Understanding how anxiety and anxious thoughts happen is a starting place for reducing the impact of anxiety on our lives.
The next (more essential) step is the actual practices for bringing that knowledge into fruition. When you do that, you can start to find relief quickly.If you begin integrating these practices, you should start to feel relief quickly Click To Tweet
This post obviously isn’t a comprehensive account of how to do that (I’m not a qualified therapist). Also, any approach needs to be tailored to you. And only you can say for sure whether you need support to do it.
Key practices you can start to do right away are:
- noticing amygdala triggers.
- deliberately exposing yourself to the triggers from a safe vantage point.
- becoming aware as soon as you start to nurture anxious thoughts with where and how you are placing attention.
- using MCBT and ACT techniques to diffuse thoughts and gain freedom from them.