Lesson 15: Stop Your Anxiety

Everyone experiences fear and anxiety.

This lesson is taken from Rewire Your Anxious Brain by Catherine M. Pittman and Elizabeth M. Karle.

Even though anxiety has the power to rob a person of the capacity to complete many of the basic activities of life, all of these individuals can return to fully engaging in life. They can understand the cause of their difficulties and begin to find confidence again. If you are one of the millions who wake every day with anxiety disorder– you feel that you cant face another day. If you are being ravaged by negative emotion after negative emotion and you feel it will never end — know this. It will end. No matter what your mind is telling you, that debilitating anxiety will end. I have been there (Craig – Paradigm Shift). For six months I woke up with panic attacks, afraid to face the day. But know this, if nothing else, time will alleviate your anxiety. Everything changes. Nothing stays the same.

There are also many things you can do to reduce and even eliminate your anxiety. This understanding is possible thanks to a recent revolution in knowledge about the brain structures that create anxiety. In the past two decades, research has revealed that the brain has a surprising level of neuroplasticity, meaning an ability to change its structures and reorganize its patterns of reacting. Even parts of the brain that were once thought impossible to change in adults are capable of being modified, revealing that the brain actually has an amazing capacity to change.

If you remember from the first lesson in the first Paradigm Shift Class, your thoughts create clusters of neurons. Your brain has created a huge cluster of neurons firing away and causing your anxiety. The stronger your anxiety the bigger the cluster. This cluster has been created by perhaps years and years of negative thoughts. It is gigantic. Obviously you just cant make it disappear in a single moment. You have to prune it down a little at a time and with some patience you can completely get rid of that monster in your brain.

Two fairly separate pathways in the brain can create anxiety. One path begins in the cerebral cortex, the large, convoluted, gray part of the brain, and involves our perceptions and thoughts about situations. The other travels more directly through the amygdalas (uh-MIG-dull-uhs), two small, almond-shaped structures, one on each side of the brain. The amygdala (generally referred to in the singular) triggers the ancient fight-or-flight response, which has been passed down virtually unchanged from the earliest vertebrates on earth.

Thoughts originating in the cortex may be the cause of anxiety, or they may have the effect of increasing or decreasing anxiety. In many instances, changing our thoughts can help us prevent our cognitive processes from initiating or contributing to anxiety. Although the cortex can initiate or contribute to anxiety, the amygdala is required to trigger the anxiety response. However, the amygdala can also receive information before the information can be processed by the various lobes in the cortex. This means the lateral nucleus of the amygdala can react to protect you from danger before your cortex even knows what the danger is.

Consider Melinda, a ten-year-old girl who was looking for camping equipment in the basement of her home. She walked through a doorway and jumped back in fear. Her reaction was triggered by a coat hanging on a coatrack. Her amygdala responded to the shape of the coat, which could have been an intruder, and caused her to jump out of reach of the “intruder” before she even realized what she’d seen. As an evolution-based safety measure, the amygdala is wired to react before the cortex can.

The detail-focused cortex takes more time to process information from the thalamus. In Melinda’s case, the visual information needs to be sent to the occipital lobe at the back of the head, and from there it’s sent to the frontal lobes, where the information is integrated and informed choices arise. That’s why Melinda jumped back immediately but recovered in a moment and resumed looking for the camping equipment: it took a moment for her cortex to provide the information that the dark shape was a completely harmless coat.

The quick reaction that results from the amygdala pathway is typically called the fight-or-flight response. You’re probably familiar with this phenomenon, which prepares the body to react quickly in a dangerous situation. Most of us have experienced this response and can recall times we felt an adrenaline rush and reacted in an unthinking, immediate way to protect ourselves from a threat. How many people have been saved on the freeway by lightning-quick, instinctive reactions arising in the amygdala? The central nucleus of the amygdala is where the fight-or-flight response is initiated.

Being aware of the amygdala’s ability to take over is crucial for anyone who’s struggling with anxiety. It’s a reminder that the brain is hardwired to allow the amygdala to seize control in times of danger. And because of this wiring, it’s difficult to directly use reason-based thought processes arising in the higher levels of the cortex to control amygdala-based anxiety. You may have already recognized that your anxiety often doesn’t make sense to your cortex, and that your cortex can’t just reason it away.

If you want to change the anxiety you experience, you need to change the neural connections that lead to anxiety responses. Some of these connections are stored in the brain’s circuitry in the form of memories, and memories are formed in both the cortex and the amygdala. The existence of different memory systems explains why you can experience anxiety in a situation without any conscious memory (or understanding) of why the situation produces anxiety. Just because your amygdala has an emotional memory of an event doesn’t mean that your cortex remembers the same event.

Amygdala-based emotions aren’t rational. They’re based on associations, not logic. Consider Beth, who was sexually assaulted while a specific Rolling Stones song was playing. After the assault, whenever Beth heard the song she felt intense anxiety. Obviously, the Rolling Stones song had nothing to do with the sexual assault; it was just a coincidence that it was playing when the assault occurred. Nonetheless, Beth’s amygdala responded to the association between the song and the assault, an extremely negative event. In this way, the amygdala transforms a neutral object or situation into something that creates an emotional reaction. To be more accurate, the object itself isn’t transformed; rather, it’s processed in a new or different way by the amygdala.

People experience the connection the amygdala makes between an object and fear, but they may not recognize or understand the connection. They may feel a strong emotional reaction to an object without realizing that a neural connection has been made or understanding why the emotional reaction is occurring. This lack of awareness is completely normal and extends to all sorts of neural functions. For example, you don’t have to be consciously aware of the neural circuits that allow you to read this book, to sit upright, or to breathe. Thank goodness! That kind of awareness would be exhausting.

Although the amygdala pathway is very powerful in its ability to activate a variety of physical reactions instantly, anxiety can also have its origins in the cortex pathway. The cortex operates in a completely different way than the amygdala, but its responses and circuitry can prompt the amygdala to produce anxiety. Through this process, the cortex can create unnecessary anxiety and also worsen anxiety that originates in the amygdala. Once you understand how your cortex initiates or contributes to anxiety, you can see the possibilities for either interrupting or modifying cortex reactions to reduce your anxiety.

When worries or distressing thoughts are produced in the cortex, this can activate the amygdala to produce an anxiety response even though the person hasn’t seen, heard, or felt anything that’s dangerous in any way.

That is cognitive fusion, or believing in the absolute truth of mere thoughts. It’s one of the biggest problems created in the cortex, which can produce a rigid belief that thoughts and emotions should be treated as though they reflect an ultimate reality that can’t be questioned. Confusing a thought with reality is a very seductive process due to the cortex’s tendency to believe it possesses the real meaning of every thought, emotion, or physical sensation. Actually, the cortex is surprisingly prone to misinterpretations and errors. It’s common to have erroneous, unrealistic, or illogical thoughts or to experience emotions that don’t make much sense. In reality, you need not take every thought or emotion you have seriously. You can allow many thoughts and emotions to simply pass without undue attention or analysis.

Because the human cortex has the ability to predict future events and imagine their consequences, we experience anticipation, which is both a blessing and a curse. Anticipation, which refers to expectations about what will occur, is based on the cortex’s ability to begin preparing for a future event by considering or visualizing it. The anticipation of negative situations creates threatening thoughts and images that can significantly increase anxiety. In fact, the experience of anticipation is often more distressing than the anticipated event itself! In many cases, the thoughts and images people have about an upcoming situation, such as a potential confrontation, an exam, or a task that must be completed, are much worse than the actual situation turns out to be. Your cortex has established certain patterns of responding, and once it has developed these habits, it can be challenging to interrupt and change them. But they can be changed.

In the next lesson we will show you how to make the change.