Anxiety is like an alarm system that is going off in our body to alert us that something seems amiss. It doesn’t mean it is amiss, it just is getting us primed in case danger is lurking. I compare it to the smoke detectors we have in our homes. Just because it goes off when I am cooking, ahem, doesn’t mean that there is a fire. It just means that we are now getting take out.
Here is how it works. In our brain there is a gland called the thalamus. It sits in the lower part of the brain and its primary job is to scan the environment and takes everything in. Right now my thalamus is noting that I am working on a computer in my living room while sitting on a very soft, comfortable couch.
The thalamus sends the scans to the amygdala, sharing all that it is observing. And the amygdala says, “Cool, cool, cool. But is any of that going to kill us?” To determine if there is indeed a threat, the amygdala sends a message to its neighbor called the hippocampus.
Now, the hippocampus is like a filing system that has everything that has ever happened to us in its filing cabinet. The hippocampus goes through its filing system and pulls out any file that has to do with computers, couches and living rooms. It cross references with the colors, scents and beliefs about these items as well. From there it will send a message back to the amygdala with its findings: “Alert! Couches are inherently dangerous to her because she fell off of one and broke her arm once (not true, just illustrating a point).
And the amygdala, receiving the message that couches are indeed dangerous, shouts out, “Soldier up!” and your body starts its fight, flight or freeze deal. Cool, right?
Now here is what is interesting. At the same time that the thalamus sends a message to the amygdala, it also sends the message to your cortical region in your higher brain. Your cortical brain is where logic and reason resides. And your logical brain would see all the processing happening between the hippocampus and the amygdala and it would say in its calm, cool, and collected way, “Fellas, no need to worry about the couch. She only fell off and hurt herself once 25 years ago. Think of all the times she has sat on a couch and not gotten hurt. No need to get upset – call off the dogs and soldier down.”
BUT, because the thalamus, amygdala and hippocampus reside right next to each other, the messaging system takes place like that (insert snapping fingers), while it takes just a little more time for the message to reach the cortical region (probably two snaps). Your body can be primed and ready to go or flooded with anxiety way before your higher brain engages. The result is that you go “off line” and respond as if in danger.
And if our lower brain is believes we are in danger we become flooded with adrenaline and higher reasoning doesn’t stand a chance. If it did, our bodies would be ready to fight, sure, but our thoughts would be something like this, “I am ready to fight and I am going to defeat my foe, but I am also not sure I like my outfit today and oh by the way, I am a bit peckish and could really go for a sandwich.” As you can imagine, this line of thinking isn’t particularly helpful when the proverbial saber tooth tiger is viewing you as her evening repast.
The way our brain works is nothing short of genius and really quite remarkable. But, sometimes, our anxiety system is so overtaxed and overloaded that we are on high alert ALL THE TIME. And our system is primed and ready to fight ALL THE TIME. This is not healthy and not only taxes our adrenal system, it causes disruptions in relationships, increases unhealthy coping strategies and is just plain exhausting.
A key component in overriding the flooded and overworked anxiety system is to first understand what the heckity-heck is happening. Education and awareness go a long way because once you are in the know, you can start some pretty serious deescalating self talk and self soothing.
For example, if you are anxious because you are about to take a test and you become upset, panicky and feel like you need to escape, you can tell yourself that this is just your alarm system going off and that even though you FEEL like you are in danger, that is not actually the case. You can take some deep breaths and engage your higher, rational brain to look at the situation logically and remind yourself that test taking is not actually dangerous and in fact will be over in just a few minutes.
You can also start compiling healthy self soothing techniques. Maybe looking at photo of your favorite pet makes you feel calm and centered. Perhaps there is certain scent that reminds you of happy times that you can carry around with you and rely on for soothing. Or there might be a song that instantly shifts your mood. Having an arsenal of self soothing coping skills is essential in life. Carry them around with you and use them frequently and often.
And remember that while these ideas can be helpful, professional support is available to you and you do not have to go it alone.