Anxiety is a complex system of emotions, brain activity, and physical sensations that work to protect us from danger. We are all wired with this alert response system. This protective system is controlled by the most primitive structures in the brain stem. This “lizard brain” is also called “fight or flight.” Unfortunately for humans, this instinct often takes over when we’re not in danger.
Anxiety in Your Genes
Even if no one in your family has anxiety, you can still inherit anxiety. Winning the genetic lottery may not seem like a cause for celebration though.
Anxiety in Experience
Before age 5, we respond to threats by watching the reactions of others. How our needs are met may train our alert response system to over-react when we’re not in danger.
Even without genetics or early life experiences, we can acquire anxiety because of traumatic events that were frightening and dangerous to us or others.
Early Warning System
The locus coeruleus (LC) is located on the brainstem and is responsible for alerting the brain to stress, reward, danger, and the unexpected. LC registers an event and alerts the rest of the team to spring to action. LC also listens for feedback from others as long as necessary to eliminate the threat.
Command & Control
The amygdala is the first to receive LC’s message. As the seat of emotional memory, the amygdala controls our attention, focus, and memory. This drives and controls the actions of every other player in the brain, including when to stand down. The PAG (periaqueductal grey) assists the amygdala in creating messages for others.
First, to receive orders, the hippocampus communicates with the amygdala in real-time. It is responsible for deciding whether we engage or avoid the threat. It may also make us freeze. Anticipation anxiety comes from the hippocampus. It determines our actions. It will activate the HPA axis when the situation is unexpected.
When the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) gets this message from the hippocampus, it springs into action to deal with this new threat to restore our sense of calm.
The prefrontal cortex has two hemispheres: right and left. The right hemisphere is responsible for creativity and emotional expression. The left is responsible for rational, analytical thought. When our alert response system is activated, the left hemisphere is inactivated. This leaves the right hemisphere in control. That’s why we often behave in erratic, irrational ways when we’re anxious. We can’t stop it. Suddenly we become completely irrational, much to the dismay of anyone observing the event. It can take a minimum of 30 minutes for our brain chemistry to return to normal and finally allow us to use our left hemisphere again.
Hormones, Steroids, Neurotransmitters, & More
Anxiety increases adrenaline, cortisol, serotonin, testosterone, and luteinizing hormone. Glutamate, NMDA, and nitric oxide set off “fight or flight” and respond to diazepam (Xanax). Progesterone also responds to diazepam. Cortisone and serotonin can also stop the alert response system when reduced by other influences.
Shutting down our primitive, instinctive alert response system can happen automatically or intentionally. Left alone, the system will eventually restore homeostasis and life will get back to normal. Until it’s over, we’re likely to experience:
- Difficulty making decisions
- Tunnel vision
- Dry mouth
- Inability to communicate
- Brain fog
- Shortness of breath
- Racing heart
We Can Shut Off Anxiety
Our alert response system is triggered by events that are unexpected, unwanted, and out of our control. That feeling of helplessness lies by telling us we can’t change what’s happening and that our only option is to endure it.
That’s not true! There’s a lot we can do to turn off that alarm. We’re fighting against a powerful instinct that’s been perfected over millions of years. When we decide to do something new, we risk setting off that alert system. So we have to be creative and sneaky. By working with the alert system, we can subtly change our instinct. We can make it work for us.
Think of a time when your alert system was trigged. What were your urges? What did you crave? Find something you find pleasurable and pair it with a brief activity. The idea is to trigger a dopamine response in the brain. Dopamine is responsible for motivation and pleasure. By using our brain, we can retrain it to alert us only when there’s a real danger.
Here’s a list of activities that can stop or prevent anxiety. You don’t have to do them all. As you review the list, think about how you can pair one or two with something that gives you a dopamine rush.
Fast – stops anxiety already in progress
- Deep abdominal breathing
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Body scanning
- Focus word
Slow – prevent anxiety before it starts
- Body scanning
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Tai chi
Is anxiety still getting the better of you?
This isn’t an exhaustive list of strategies. Some challenges require expert assistance. If you’ve tried a lot of options, you may be thinking that you just have to live with anxiety. No way! You probably just need a creative approach that’s tailored just for you. That’s right. You need therapy that’s as unique as you are. No one-size-fits-all cookie cutter approach will do. If you’re interested in how this works, please book a free consult to discuss your options. I’d love to meet you.