Anxiety and How Our Brains Work

To overcome any type of anxiety, it’s crucial to understand what parts of the brain are involved and how they interact to keep us safe, but also how they can misfire. Alarming us of threats that don’t actually exists.

The good news is, anxiety is mostly learned and, as a result, can be unlearned. Because our brains are not static and because they are constantly learning from experience, we have the ability to take control and retrain it.

What parts of the brain controls anxiety? The Amygdala (Alarm Brain), Cortex (Thinking Brain), and Thalamus (Traffic Director) are important areas of the brain to understand when dealing with anxiety. By understanding how the three parts interact, you can understand how anxiety is triggered, and how to overcome it.

In this article, I’ll explain how these three parts interact, their main functions, how they can misfire, and how they learn and change.

First, let’s look at why anxiety even exists.

Why Does the Brain Create Anxiety?

Anxiety is there to protect us and keep us alive. Think of how many times in your life you had a close call, where if it wasn’t for anxiety or fear, you would have been seriously injured or worse.

In these types of situations, your brain switched to autopilot, took control, and kept you safe.

Because of this, we don’t want to get rid of anxiety entirely. Though it might be fun to imagine a life without it, in reality, our lives would be a mess.

By understanding the brain and anxiety, we’re not trying to get rid of anxiety. Instead, we’re trying to retrain the brain into decreasing the false alarms, while sending us alarm in truly dangerous situations.

The Amygdala (Alarm Brain)

The Amygdala is the part of the brain that’s responsible for the Fight-or-Flight response. The Amygdala’s main job is to keep us safe.

When the Amygdala is triggered you know it. It’s instant, automatic, and intense. You’re completely out of control.

Here are some examples of the Amygdala being triggered:

  • You’re driving, a little kid runs out in front of you. Without thinking, you slam on your breaks. Your heart is racing, your breathing is quick and shallow, and your hands are tense and shaking.
  • You walk into your bedroom and a family member, hiding in the closet, jumps out and scares you. You instantly flinch, yell, and your heart is racing.
  • You’re hiking on a trail and in the corner of your eye you catch a stick that resembles a snake. You instantly jump and take a few quick steps back.

What’s important to notice is in the first example, there is true danger. In the last two, you’re perfectly safe.

What’s the same between all three is the automatic reactions and feelings. They all happened completely out of your control.

The Amygdala isn’t that great at deciphering between truly dangerous situations and situations that just first appear to be dangerous.

The Amygdala’s philosophy is, “I’d rather be wrong and keep you safe.”

The Amygdala values speed and safety over accuracy.

As a result, the Amygdala misfires all the time. It says we’re in danger when we’re perfectly safe.

The Cortex (Thinking Brain)

The Cortex is responsible for more complex tasks. One in particular is thinking. Things like reasoning, judgement, planning, analyzing, and creativity.

While the Amygdala is fast, but not that smart, the Cortex is smart, but slow. The Cortex is more likely to get things right. And the price to pay for that is time.

The Thalamus (Traffic Director)

The Thalamus is the part of the brain the receives information from the external world and decides the most appropriate destination. It’s the traffic director.

The Two Pathways to Anxiety

There are generally two pathways to anxiety:

  1. The fast and direct route: directly from the Traffic Director Brain to the Alarm Brain.
  2. The slow and indirect route: from the Traffic Director Brain to the Thinking Brain then to the Alarm Brain.

An important note:

  1. The Alarm Brain has many pathways to the Thinking Brain. This means the Alarm Brain can easily influence our thoughts.
  2. The Thinking Brain has few pathways to the Alarm Brain. This means our thoughts don’t as easily influence our Alarm Brain.

The Haunted House

Imagine being at a Halloween carnival, walking up to a haunted house. Even though you hear screaming inside, logically, you know there is nothing to be afraid of.

Your Thinking Brain says, “I am safe. This is a carnival. I’ve been to many haunted houses before and it was perfectly safe. The zombies inside are just actors.”

Even knowing this and keeping this thought at the front of your mind, as you walk through the haunted house, you’re constantly getting scared. The situation causes you to jump, scream, and close your eyes to reduce the stimulus coming in.

No matter how much your Thinking Brain says you’re safe, your Alarm Brain misfires the entire time, screaming at you that you’re in danger.

Even though the Thinking Brain is very smart and logical, no matter how strong or lengthy of a case it makes to the Alarm Brain, the Alarm Brain doesn’t learn this way. It speaks a different language.

After the Halloween carnival, you come home and get ready for bed. As you’re laying in bed you have a random worry pop into your brain, “What if one of those zombies with a chainsaw were in my closet right now?” As you think this, you start to notice your heart rate increasing and you start to breath heavy. There’s the Alarm Brain again.

At the haunted house, your anxiety was triggered via the direct route: a scary zombie jumps out at you –> Traffic Director Brain –> Alarm Brain.

At home, your anxiety is triggered via the slower route: an intense session at the haunted house –> Traffic Director Brain –> Thinking Brain (thinking about a zombie in the closet) –> Alarm Brain.

The Brain and Perception

Most of the time both the Alarm Brain and Thinking Brain are working together. They feed off one another. The Alarm Brain is being triggered by the direct route and the indirect route via the Thinking Brain.

The Alarm Brain can easily convince the Thinking Brain that it’s in danger. If left unattended, the Thinking Brain goes wild with “What if” thinking. It comes up with all sorts of creative ways that we’re in danger. The Alarm Brain can convince the Thinking Brain to distort reality. As the Thinking Brain Distorts reality, it triggers the Alarm brain even more. Things escalate quickly.

The reverse is also true. Maybe the process starts with the Thinking Brain.

In short, both parts of the brain influence our perception of a situation.

Take for example the video below.

There are two main ways to relate this video to the Thinking Brain and the Alarm Brain.

First, you can think about the background music as our emotions and physical sensations. If you’re in front of an audience, and your heart rate is slow, your breathing is normal, your background music is calm. As a result, you’re likely to perceive the audience, their reactions and their facial expressions as generally positive and perceive the situation as safe. Maybe even enjoyable, and at the worst, neutral.

Now if you’re heart is racing, palms are sweaty, you’re breathing heavily, and your leg is shaking, people in the audience could have the same facial expressions, but you will perceive the situation as dangerous. Every facial expression you see will likely be perceived as negative and a threat.

The Alarm Brain changes our physical state (our background music), which changes how we perceive a situation.

We can also think about the background music as the thoughts the Thinking Brain produces. If you’re in front on an audience with thoughts: “They’re enjoying my speech” or “They think I’m competent and enjoyable.” You’re Alarm Brain won’t be triggered and the situation will be perceived as safe.

If your Thinking Brain is producing negative thoughts: “Their negatively judging me” or “I’m such an idiot,” you’re likely to view the same facial expression as a threat and your Thinking Brain will alert your Alarm Brain to fire. Things like racing heart and sweaty palms are likely to follow.

Our perception is actually more important than the actual event itself. Our perception is the main driver.

What’s the goal?

Is it to always be thinking situations are safe? No. We’d never prepare for difficult situations, we’d be taken advantage of, we’d be physically injured often.

The goal is to have our Thinking Brain and Alarm Brain to be more align with and reflective of reality.

We want the two brains to continue to alert us when we’re in actual danger and we want them to remain, at least, under control (and hopefully calm) when we’re not in danger.

How Does The Alarm Brain Learn

Again, the Alarm Brain does not learn from the Thinking Brain coaching it or explaining to it.

This is like trying to tell someone who is emotionally triggered, “Just calm down.” If you’ve ever had anyone tell you that, you know it simply triggers you more.

It’s also the same as walking into the haunted house after telling yourself there’s no real danger inside, and expect the Alarm Brain not to start firing when zombies catch you off guard.

The Alarm Brain only learns from experience.

So, instead of using reasoning in attempt to calm the Alarm Brain about the haunted house, we instead teach it by walking into the haunted house. The first time we walk in the Alarm Brain will be firing. But, if we walk into the haunted house again, it’s going to be less triggering. And if we walk in again, it’s going to be even less triggering.

Each time you go into the haunted house and walk out alive and uninjured, the Alarm Brain slowly learns the negative event it expected (i.e., death by a zombie) doesn’t actually occur. As a result, the intensity of the anxiety decreases each time.

How Does The Thinking Brain Learn

The Thinking Brain does respond to logic. If we have a thought, “Everyone is negatively judging me,” we can use reason to confront this thought. And as we start to show the Thinking Brain that maybe it’s making large assumption and maybe even wrong, the anxiety will decrease.

It’s important to know that though the Thinking Brain is smart, it’s far from perfect. And most of our brains have picked up unhelpful habits that negatively distort reality and overestimate threats.

It’s very helpful to address the Thinking Brain when trying to overcome anxiety as it’s often the culprit behind overthinking, distorted thoughts, rumination, and unnecessary worry and anticipatory anxiety. All very common with all types of anxiety.

References

Greenberg, M. (2021, April 23). Exposure is about learning, not habituation. Dr. Michael J Greenberg. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://drmichaeljgreenberg.com/exposure-is-about-learning-not-habituation/.

McMahon, E. J. (2019). Overcoming Anxiety and Panic interactive guide. Hands-on-Guide.

Pittman, C. M., & Karle, E. M. (2019). Rewire your anxious brain: How to use the neuroscience of fear to end anxiety, panic, & worry. Echo Point Books & Media.

Winston, S., & Seif, M. N. (2019). Overcoming unwanted intrusive thoughts: A Cbt-based guide to getting over frightening, obsessive, or disturbing thoughts. Echo Point Books & Media, LLC.

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