How Your Brain Makes You Anxious – Part 2

By: Elizabeth Thompson

Buried deep in the middle of your brain is a group of nerve centers which manage emotions and primitive response patterns, very old in evolutionary terms, collectively called the limbic system. The limbic system evolved to help you survive – and it does a great job of it… most of the time. In particular, the assessment of whether or not something is dangerous is largely up to two small centers, each about the size and shape of an almond, together called the “amygdala”.

You are not born knowing what is dangerous – mostly, this is something you learn. This is not like learning to read or play the piano – it’s like learning to be careful around dogs after one bites you, or not to play with fire after you get burned. It’s learning from pain and fear – and if your growing-up process was healthy, neither the pain nor fear were extreme, but just enough to make you understand the real threats and dangers in your world.

Your primitive ancestors survived because they learned fast about danger – and in a dangerous world, being able to detect a threat was definitely a survival trait.

The problems began as our world became more complex, and dangers became more subtle and less defined. So as well as learning about dogs, fire, speeding cars and deep swimming pools, we also learn that if we wear a party dress to school we might get laughed at, or if we don’t learn to catch a ball, we won’t get selected for the team.

Even so, it is still healthy learning, stuff we need to negotiate the world properly.

So how does this go wrong?

There are a number of ways this process can get out of kilter – and there are different anxiety disorders to match them.

The first thing to look at is the difference between fear and anxiety. Anxiety is a type of fear, but true fear – whether mild or severe – is a simple reaction to a well-defined threat, and it goes away once the threat is over.

A phobia is developed from simple fear like this, of a specific threat, maybe the fear of spiders, or of heights, or of small spaces. These are real threats – though a phobia is defined as fear out of proportion to the actual threat.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is much more nebulous, and doesn’t have such an obvious trigger. Yet your amygdala has decided that there is some sort of threat, and triggers off the fight/flight response accordingly.

To understand how this works, we need to look at the concept of generalised learning.

Perhaps you are playing with a big black German Shepherd dog as a child, and it bites you. It doesn’t have to be a severe bite, just enough to frighten you. You learn, not only that big black German Shepherd dogs are dangerous, but maybe your brain decides that all big dogs are dangerous. Or maybe that all black dogs are dangerous. Or maybe that all dogs could be dangerous. Or even that all animals with teeth should be considered dangerous and approached with caution… which would be a very sensible thing to learn.

This is generalised learning, as a healthy, normal process.

It starts to become dysfunctional if you begin to see monsters – big black shapes – in the shadows. This is how your amygdala learns to over-generalise, and you can see how it might cause problems.

The same thing might happen later – at school, you get bullied by a couple of boys in the next class. This might generalise into fear of school, or fear of boys, or both.

You may then go to a new school – or a new job – and simply feel anxious in this new situation, not quite sure what might happen, but knowing that danger of some sort is present.

If you have some good experiences of school (and boys) it is much easier to keep the fear in perspective. The reality is that there are bullies, and it is good to be able to identify them and take action. But the worst part of anxiety is that, because most of this process is outside of your conscious awareness, you don’t have much control over what your amygdala decides is dangerous. And we know from brain scan studies that the amygdala tends to be a bit trigger-happy – it reacts to the faces of strangers as a threat, for example.

So how does this help you deal with anxiety?

The very worst thing you can do is avoid the situation that makes you anxious – yet this is exactly what we all want to do. But if you do, you are just reinforcing the learning of danger by the amygdala, and it will make your anxiety worse each time you are confronted by that situation.

There are two ways that you can help your amygdala learn to respond more productively, however.

One is by making a conscious assessment of the situation, and talking yourself through it – more or less the same way you would talk to soothe a very scared child or a frightened pet. It won’t stop your amygdala from releasing all its stress chemicals – it’s too late for that. But it will help your brain learn that the situation is not in fact dangerous, and you will find that as you continue to do this, your anxiety will go down.

The second way you can help your brain is by making sure it has a good supply of the nutrients it needs to activate its “calming” response. Zen Anxiety has been formulated to include optimal amounts of these nutrients such as GABA, Magnesium and B6, together with other ingredients that boost your brain’s ability to calm itself.

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