How anxious brains work is an important part of the understanding of anxiety and panic. So let’s begin to understand it.
Let’s start with the anxiety response. If we can understand what’s going on, we have a useful starting point. This is another in the series of learning how anxiety works.
Triggers begin the process; we’ve all had those feelings of being in a dangerous place, even when physically we aren’t. Clients often describe this as a feeling of ‘dread’. So what happens when anxiety is triggered in this way?
The parts of your brain responsible for anxiety are the amygdala and the thalamus, the limbic system. The aim of the thalamus is to keep us safe. The thalamus scans for potential dangers around us all the time, monitoring all our senses, a little like anxiety radar.
If it detects a potential threat, rightly or wrongly, even if something that isn’t a threat is recognised as a threat, it sends a message to the amygdala.
The amygdala then does all those things that we recognise as unwelcome and unpleasant. It may raise heart rate, cause sweating, shallow breathing, and tense our muscles. We are from that point hyper-vigilant.
This is the ‘fight or flight’ response that I am sure you are familiar with; it’s a natural and useful response to dangers around us.
The problem here is that in anxious people, this process can begin at any time, sometimes even for no apparent reason. It can happen on an otherwise good day – it makes us anxious, panic and want to escape.
This trigger can be tied to danger or it could be a trigger from the past, wrongly recognised in the present, it could come from a sight, sound, smell, touch or any of our senses.
Once the thalamus has signaled the amygdala, the amygdala takes over and shuts down our rational thinking. We are left with instinctive simple reactions such as fight or flight; we are out of reason and into instinct.
Importantly, we are responding to the stimulus without choice, the amygdala is preparing the body to deal with the threat.
What is needed to combat this response are methods that reassure the amygdala so that we can regulate the body, regulate the breathing and by doing that, tell the brain that everything is alright.
By doing that we turn back on the rational part of our brain and we no longer have an anxious brain.
Stay tuned for more resources on understanding and treating the anxious brain.