By Nancy Ebbert, LCPC
Many people routinely experience symptoms of anxiety from worry, agitation, fatigue and distraction all the way to panic attacks and obsessive thoughts. These experiences can be so uncomfortable that sufferers will go to extremes of avoidance and self-medication in order to feel better. Giving the suffering associated with anxiety, you might be surprised to know that anxiety symptoms are an important part of one of our brain’s fundamental priorities: to keep us alive.
Is It a Stick or a Snake?
Let’s start with an example of our brain’s drive to keep us alive. Imagine you are walking down a path in some woods and you see something long, dark, and curvy on the path in front of you. How do you react? You may have a number of reactions, but probably the first was a feeling of alertness or startle; you may have drawn in your breath sharply or even started to move quickly.
There are two important paths through the brain for visual data. The first travels to an area that stores patterns for danger. “Long, dark and curvy on the path” is one of the patterns for danger. It’s a very short trip through the brain to this center and in turn it quickly triggers a reaction to recognizing the pattern. This is commonly known as the fight-or-flight response. (Some also add “freeze” to that response.) Chemical signals cascade through your body preparing it to fight or run for your life. Typical signs include:
- Increased heart rate
- Fast, shallow breathing
- Dilation of blood vessels in large muscle groups and constriction elsewhere
- Dilation of the pupils of the eyes
- Slowing of digestion
Your body prioritizes resources and drops out those deemed unnecessary, such as reproduction, digestion and higher cognitive functions. Long ago, if you had been out looking for juicy berries for lunch and ran into a saber tooth tiger, this reflex would have been critical for your survival.
The second and longer path is to a data storage and analysis area of the brain that matches the image to previously stored data. Long after you’ve experienced your fight-or-flight response your brain decides whether or not what you’ve seen is actually dangerous. You may be running down the path before you realize you have no reason to. In our society, though, we rarely face any modern equivalent of a big predator. So, why are we so anxious?
No Surprises, Please
While our lives have changed dramatically, our brains haven’t. Our brains are rarely in favor of change. For our internal systems, our brains work to promote homeostasis, that is, stability in our body temperature, blood sugar levels, oxygen concentration, etc. Our brains prefer us to operate by habit so we don’t use any more energy than necessary. Try brushing your teeth with your other hand and you’ll see what I mean. We appear to have a bias for a routine life, one that is predictable, so that the “saber tooth tigers” are known.
Our Negative Bias
Our minds are so devoted to keeping us and our loved ones safe that they also prioritize our memories to make life appear scarier than it is. Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, says that our brains are like “Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” A negative event is flagged for storage and analysis, so that we can prevent it from happening again. Positive experiences do not make this impact on the brain. Some researchers believe we need six positive experiences for every negative one to balance it out. And, our brain has the ability to re-play negative experiences endlessly, so that we react as if the event is happening over and over.
Genetic pre-disposition or traumatic events may over-sensitize the nervous system leading to crippling excess of anxiety, worry, and panic attacks. We live in a world with an astounding rate of change and we struggle to accept each new idea of what a normal life is now.
Co-existing with the Snake
In my practice, clients often experience a sense of relief when they understand the nature of their symptoms of anxiety and what triggers them. This helps reduce the phenomenon of getting anxious about being anxious. We move forward on two fronts.
- First, clients learn some skills to reduce their symptoms of anxiety, such as relaxation breathing, exercise or healthy distractions.
- Second we address the underlying issues from past to present. We explore the people or circumstances that trigger your anxiety now. We look at the protective behaviors you developed since childhood to keep you safe in the best way you knew how. Then we can support you in developing new ways of thinking and acting that help you build the life you want.
If you are interested in exploring what we can do together to reduce your symptoms of anxiety, please contact me for a free phone consultation or to make an appointment.
Much of the information about the brain in this article was adapted from a book I highly recommend:
Rick Hanson, PhD
New Harbinger Publications, 2009