The What and Why of Anxiety?
Anxiety is a state characterized by clusters of symptoms in response to perceived and/or imagined threats to stimuli. What exactly are those stimuli that causes anxiety and why do they do so?
Let’s start with an experiment. Imagine you are visiting a zoo and you are standing near the cage of tigers. You see one tiger coming close to you. You know that you are safe hence you are experiencing no discomfort right now. The tiger is moving closer to you. Suddenly he jumps at you (still inside the cage). What will be your response?
Running away? Increased heartbeat? Sweating? Cold hands? Even I am hyperventilating while writing this. That’s the power of stimuli. Here the stimulus was internal (our imagination/thought) but stimuli can also be external (if you were really present in that situation the external stimulus would be the tiger jumping at you).
So, continuing with the example, after some time you realize that the tiger cannot harm you. It is inside the cage and you calm yourself down and may laugh a bit at the situation.
In this very example most of us will behave in the same manner. So, what exactly is going on inside our brain at this point?
Let’s dig a little deeper!
When you, in the blink of an eye, ran away from the situation (the tiger jumping at you) your amygdala took over the driver’s seat of your brain. Our brain has two amygdala located near the center. (Want to know where inside your head amygdala is situated? Point your left index finger at your right eye and your right index finger towards your right ear canal; the point of intersection of the lines from your two fingers is about where your right amygdala is located.) The amygdala stores memories, especially fearful and emotional memories. It acts quickly and is beyond logic. When your ancestors used to stay in jungles their amygdala labeled tigers as dangerous, passing that same response onto us. And now even with modern learning, your amygdala still responded to the tiger (inside the cage) as dangerous; just like your ancestors used to. Does that make sense?
So, if your amygdala made you run away then what made you calm down?
It’s the cortex in your brain that does the perceiving and thinking — the same part that is helping you to read and understand this article.
In the original example, our cortex helped us to examine the situation, analyze it and change our response accordingly, giving us signals to calm down because there is no way tiger can harm us.
However, that same cortex doesn’t always calms us down. It creates its own stimuli to give us feelings of anxiety, where its boon comes its bane, with its ability to anticipate the results of situations, plan our actions, initiate responses, and use feedback from the world to stop or change our behaviors. Unfortunately, these impressive capacities also lay the groundwork for anxiety to manifest.
Differentiating between cortex-based anxiety and amygdala-based anxiety
In cortex-based anxiety the source of anxiety is known. We are more conscious, and aware of it. If you find that your thoughts keep turning to ideas or images which increase your anxiety, or that you obsess over doubts, become preoccupied with worries, or get stuck in trying to think of solutions to problems, you’re probably experiencing cortex-based anxiety.
When the source of anxiety is mostly unknown and we are less aware we are experiencing amygdala-based anxiety. It creates the powerful physical effects of anxiety, and operates more quickly than cortex-based anxiety. If you feel like your anxiety has no apparent cause and doesn’t stand up to logical scrutiny, you’re likely experiencing the effects of anxiety arising from the amygdala pathway.
Now you know why and what aspect of anxiety, so where does that leave us? How do we cope?
How to calm your amygdala?
Take deep breaths (this helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system to calm down your whole body).
Muscle relaxation (when your muscle tightens and stiffens your amygdala is activated, so practice muscle relaxation strategies every day).
Exercise (helps to release all that overwhelming adrenaline).
Do not flee (otherwise your amygdala will learn to label stimuli as dangerous, making it more difficult to manage later).
Try to resist “freezing” (do something; call a friend, scribble, go on a walk, sing anything. Try to remain active and not passive).
Practice sleep hygiene.
How to calm your cortex?
Learn to identify your negative automatic thoughts.
Identify your pattern of worrying.
Evaluate your interpretations (realistic/unrealistic).
Adopt mindfulness in your daily life.
For the ease of understanding we have learned to differentiate, but remember the amygdala and cortex are not enemies, they just have their own internal dialogues going on. When you calm your amygdala down your cortex listens, and though the reverse path is tedious, eventually the amygdala will listen to cortex too.
I hope you find this article helpful to look beyond your anxiety. If experiencing anxiety is part of your daily routine then I highly suggest you to seek professional help. If you are unable to afford therapy there are numerous self-help workbooks, and self-soothing exercises you can learn. But remember whatever you opt for, only practice will make it perfect! Do not lose hope, leading an anxiety free life is achievable.
Sudipta Rath (M.A. Counseling Psychology, M.Phil Clinical Psychology) is an Eversparks counselor and RCI certified Clinical Psychologist operating her private practice in Khurda. She specializes in trauma, OCD, anxiety, and depression, and brings an eclectic approach to her patient care methods.
Outside her practice, she is a professional acoustic guitar player who has recently expanded her interest to include ukulele, and French harp.