How an Anxious Brain Works

A lot of people suffer levels of anxiety that are deeply uncomfortable for them. In this article I want to look at where anxiety comes from and how it can work in a negative loop in our brain.

Anxiety - an ancient part of us

Anxiety – an ancient part of us

Our modern lives are busy.  We’re bombarded with media messages adoring celebrity, status and wealth which may encourage us to feel bad about our own lives and achievements. We’re bombarded with a rolling ‘News’ of awful crimes and events that often we can do nothing about. We might feel repeatedly powerless in the face of the news.

It’s no wonder we might punish ourselves with the gap between what we are and what we feel we should be.  Or we might justify feeling the world is a frightening place by imagining future situations where something terrible will happen to us or to someone we love.

0 to 1,000 mph to ‘what’s the worst thing that could possibly happen?’

We can bully ourselves inside our heads with a habit called ‘catastrophising’. This is where you take an idea of something bad happening to you or a loved one and it goes from 0 to 1,000 miles an hour in your head towards ‘what’s the worst thing that could possibly happen?’. Before you know it, you’re there, feeling like you’re living it already – the worst thing that could possibly happen – even though it hasn’t happened and is a fantasy inside your head.

Sound familiar?  It’s not just you, anxiety is about the way our brains are wired.  There’s also the possibility that we grew up around someone who was anxious.  Children copy the big people, sometimes people worry because their own ‘inner child’ thinks that’s the way to be in the world. In some families people hand down the role of worrier from generation to generation.  They might justify it with ‘expect the worst’ and you’re ahead of the game.

‘If I worry enough, bad things won’t happen’

Some people have the magical idea that if they worry enough, bad things might not happen. It’s as if we say to ourselves ‘I’m going to save up enough worry credits in the worry bank then if something bad does happen, I can take all the energy I’ve used in the past worrying and……you see the logic breaks down here.  When you anxious yourself, you can feel as if a bad thing is already happening and there’s a reason for that.

When you’re anxiousing yourself, something ancient and interesting is going on in your brain, something designed to keep you safe from a Woolly Mammoth or a Sabre Toothed Tiger.

Let’s say you’re walking down the high street and you see ‘Dave’ outsided Boots.  You wave and nod your head at Dave but get no response.  Dave walks on.  Dave hasn’t waved back. Maybe you feel hurt and angry, and out of awareness, because you feel hurt, you might feel threatened.  For the sake of this example, you start to anxious yourself. In your brain an ancient reaction starts up.

There’s a kind of car alarm in your brain

The Amygdala has been likened to a car alarm, it’s the ancient ‘fight or flight’ part of your brain. So your brain’s car alarm goes off, and just like car alarms, its very sensitive. You  are on ‘Alert to Possible Threat’.

Your Amygdala causes negative emotions and feeds them to your cortex because as a primitive human you would need to know how to be with that threat immediately. Your clever brain has an answer.

A kind of google search for other times you felt this bad

It’s as if your brain ‘googles’ ‘other times I felt this way’ to help you know what to do with this experience.  This is fantastic for near death experiences in the last Ice Age or even today but not so helpful if you’re dealing with Dave not waving back to you outside Boots.

Inside your brain your lateral prefrontal lobe searches for your memories of other times that match your feelings of hurt, anger and sadness.  And it finds them, memories and feelings and brings them to you.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, your Anterior Cingulate Cortex lights up and holds onto those thoughts and memories that match the feeling.  That way you can’t stop thinking and feeling about the other times you felt this way.

So your brain is locking you into other times you felt this way, to help you in a life or death situation that you are not in, outside Boots.

Unhelpful loops

If that wasn’t bad enough, this locked-in negativity can be experienced as another threat which sets your brain’s car alarm going off again which starts the whole cycle all over again. I hope this goes some way to de-mystify anxiety and how it can feel like a vicious cycle because it is.

We aren’t cave people anymore and generally we live lives that are longer, healthier and a lot less hazardous.  But our brains are evolved with a default setting, wired to keep us safe  from the threat of sudden death and wired to err on the side of caution. 

Just like those car alarms that can go off in a breath of wind.

So our brains have this tendency to put us on high alert to perceived threat, and to compare current threat with past feeling, threats that our bodies take seriously and can be harmful to our health.

I believe we can help ourselves break out of this ancient loop by stepping back from our anxiety and cultivating a judgement-free curiousity towards our thinking and feeling, reality-checking what’s going on for us. ‘Ok I notice I’m feeling anxious. I wonder what that’s about?’

Instead we encourage ourselves to think about our thinking and our feeling with curiousity and kindness.

‘Ok I’m feeling anxious. What’s that about? OK, Dave didn’t wave back. Maybe he didn’t see me. I’m not a mindreader, I don’t know what’s going on for him today.  If I want, next time I see him I could talk to him and find out how he’s doing. Or not. It’s up to me.’

We become our own psychological detectives noticing what’s going on for us and making sense of it, re-framing our experience with reality-checking.

This way we don’t take our anxiety at face value, just as we don’t everytime a car alarm goes off in our street.

Paul Murphy MA(Oxon) Dip.Couns. MBACP (Accred) MNCS (Acc)

counselling in Wendover, Princes Risborough, Aylesbury and the surrounding area

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