The Roots of Anxiety
When you think about trying to overcome anxiety one of your first thoughts is probably, well you just need to shift your thinking, do not focus on what is stressing you out. Perhaps when you are in the middle of an anxiety attack your tactic is to focus your brain on something else to try and calm yourself down. This remedy can be really helpful at times, however, perhaps you have noticed it does not always work.
Did you know there are in fact two different types of anxiety? One can be countered by a change of thoughts, this is cortex-based anxiety. However, one not so much, it is amygdala-based anxiety and it requires a different approach. These are different reactions of anxiety from the brain, one is through what we think about (cortex) and the other is through reactions to our environment (amygdala). You can think of the amygdala as your protector, one that can at times, overreact.
Fear and anxiety are different. Fear is a response to a clear presence of a threat. Anxiety is a response absent of an immediate threat. We feel anxiety when we have a sense of dread but are not at that moment in danger. The problems arise when anxiety starts to interfere with important parts of our lives.
Cortex-based anxiety is the type of anxiety that benefits from cognitive approaches: focussing on something else, countering your anxious provoking thought patterns, using your mind to bring yourself back to feeling calm. Amygdala anxiety does not work like that.
Your amygdala is the part of your brain that is responsible for your fear response. It can be triggered before the cognitive part of your brain is even aware of what is happening. Even more, when it is set off, is reduces the capacity for cognitive thinking. This basically means, you will be panicking and the part of your brain that you rely on to calm you down has been shut off. This is why taking trying an approach of countering your thoughts does not work with amygdala-based anxiety.
The amygdala learns from experience. It is the part of your brain that can trigger you when it is responding to different senses. Like when a certain smell reminds you of a stressful event, or a particular song. Sometimes your fear response can be heightened from these different senses without you even being aware they are a trigger. Your anxiety starts climbing and you be totally confused as to what has started it.
One of the keys to helping reduce your amygdala-based anxiety response is through exposure. Finding out what your triggers are and exposing yourself to them in a safe environment. The amygdala learns from experience so when it is exposed to something it originally saw as a threat and can learn that now that particular trigger doesn’t have a negative impact, it can learn to stop associating fear to that situation.
There is a catch though, if you are exposing yourself to something that causes you anxiety and you leave because the anxiety gets too much. Your brain then associates feeling anxious as a solution to escape the stressful situation and next time it will heighten your anxiety much quicker if it thinks that means it can get out. The protective response in your brain is always trying to keep you safe, this includes from anything that provokes your anxiety.
This is where mindset work will come in. You need to set yourself up before you move into the stressful situation. You need to acknowledge that you will likely experience anxiety in that situation, that it is going to be really uncomfortable, and you are probably not going to like it. But that does not mean you cannot handle it. If you keep repeating things to yourself like, “I cannot handle my anxiety”, your brain will not allow you to come up with the tools to overcome it.
If you have experienced trauma and intense anxiety associated with it, I do not encourage you to do this on your own. Seek professional help to get assistance with it. Also, do not expect yourself to overcome everything all at once. As someone who has experienced trauma and had to overtime, use exposure to bring down my anxiety response in many situations. In the early days of my healing work, trying to fully expose myself and hold myself in the space of what would trigger a fear response would have been a really dumb idea. Do not do that to yourself. It could be way too intense and only make things worse. These sorts of things, you deal with what you can in the moment, and then as time goes on you deal with a little more.
Try not to hate the fact that you have anxiety. Remember that it is a natural and very intelligent response our brains have. It is designed to keep you safe, we experience it because it serves a function. If you feel your anxiety is amygdala-based, remember to use deep breathing, keeping your body response as relaxed as possible. Break your plan to overcome your anxiety down into tiny steps and do a little bit at a time. If you find it heightening in situations, try and stay in that until you start to feel it lower slightly. If you find it hard to avoid the urge to run away from the feeling, then I recommend you set yourself a timer of how long you are going to expose yourself to the situation for before you stop. This will avoid you from fleeing when things get too much.
What is one small step you can take this week to help overcome the anxiety you experience?