Everyone experiences anxiety. But few people understand the true nature of anxiety or how it is related to the emotion-producing structures in our brains. Anxiety’s symptoms can vary greatly—some of us feel nauseous, some tremble, some get headaches, and some just feel like running away. While we each have our own unique way of experiencing anxiety, the root cause of our anxiety is the same: the amygdala. This is the part of your brain that controls the physiological responses to anxiety or fear. If you want to manage your anxiety, the amygdala is the most important part of the brain to understand.
Rating Your Anxiety
The first step to managing your anxiety is to simply measure it. This way, you can better recognize when you are becoming anxious and observe how the intensity of your anxiety changes in different situations. If you keep track of it, you may be able to discern why
it is changing. You will also get a better understanding of the different dimensions of your anxiety. Measuring your anxiety can help you become more aware of what is happening in your body when the amygdala activates the anxiety or fear response, which will help you in the following ways:
- Becoming more aware of your specific anxiety symptoms can help you manage how you react to them. Anxiety is designed to be an uncomfortable and distressing experience, so it is easy to simply react to it negatively without awareness. You may not notice that the muscles in your back and shoulders are very tense, or recognize that your headache is due to muscle tension. You may also misinterpret feelings of nausea and think you are ill, rather than anxious. Becoming aware of the physical aspects of anxiety will allow you to have greater control over how you react to your anxiety, and it will open up more opportunities for controlling the anxiety response itself.
- Identifying your specific symptoms can help you recognize the evolutionary purpose behind them and normalize them. Anxiety is part of an evolutionarily adaptive defense response that was designed with one important purpose in mind: to protect us from danger. The defense response (also called the stress response) protected our ancestors from predators or other dangers by prompting them to run away from, fight against, or hide from these threats. People without fear or worries were less likely to survive or make sure their children survived. Therefore, humans alive today are likely to be the descendants of the frightened people, not the calm people!
Even though most of the concerns we face in our modern lives don’t involve wild predators, we still hold our ancestors’ built-in defense response that creates anxiety. Having more awareness of the symptoms you experience will help you notice the evolutionary benefit of the anxiety response reflected in many of your symptoms. For example, when you are anxious, your heart may start to pound. This makes sense when you understand that the amygdala is preparing the body to run away by pumping blood more strongly into your arms and legs. Even though anxiety can be distressing, it is a normal operation of the human brain.
- Recognizing how your anxiety changes in response to different situations can help you pinpoint your anxiety triggers and recognize other useful factors. Everyone’s anxiety changes from moment to moment, as well as from day to day. By taking repeated measurements of your anxiety symptoms, you can begin to recognize that your anxiety is associated with certain triggers, like particular sounds, situations, or thoughts. Certain aspects of your life, like sleep and exercise, can also affect your anxiety. You may notice as well that your anxiety tends to occur at certain times of the day. By measuring fluctuations in the frequency and intensity of your anxiety symptoms, you can develop an awareness of the various factors that influence your anxiety.
Try to record and assess your anxiety
a couple of times per day for a week or so to get an idea of how you experience anxiety. Remember, no one experiences anxiety just like you do. Any symptoms you feel, no matter the intensity, are valid and normal. The goal is not to eliminate anxiety completely but to make sure it doesn’t limit your life.
Examining Your Own Defense Response
An activated amygdala has the right connections to trigger physiological changes in your body very rapidly—in a fraction of a second—before you even have time to think through how to respond to the situation. The amygdala puts your body in a position to flee or fight before your cortex has even finished processing the situation.
But how exactly does the amygdala activate the defense response? The amygdala has connections to some very influential structures in the brain, including the brainstem and the hypothalamus, that allow it to create this defensive reaction. The brainstem is important in influencing arousal level and moving us into survival mode, whereas the hypothalamus initiates the release of hormones such as adrenaline (which activates the sympathetic nervous system) and cortisol (which causes glucose to be released into the bloodstream for quick energy).
Remarkable changes can occur in the body when the hypothalamus is activated by the amygdala. For example, you will likely get a dry mouth due to weakened stimulation of the salivary glands. You’re also more vulnerable to hyperventilating because the airways in your lungs become more relaxed to allow you to take in more oxygen. Your heart beats faster and stronger to quickly get blood to your extremities so you can fight or flee if needed. As blood is directed to your extremities, digestion slows, which can cause a feeling of nausea or stomach discomfort. Glucose is released from the liver to provide fuel for muscle activity, meaning that your blood glucose level quickly rises. You are likely to feel a rush of adrenaline and might also feel like you need to rush to the bathroom.
If you have been keeping a daily record of your anxiety, you may already have recognized that many symptoms of your anxiety are the result of an activated amygdala. Other symptoms may seem unrelated to the defense response at first glance, but upon closer inspection, you may see a connection.
Take some time to consider your symptoms
and how these physiological processes relate to the aspects of anxiety you see in your own life. Then use the following worksheet to help you organize your thoughts as you explore your own anxiety symptoms.
You can find additional comprehensive information and exercises like these in Taming Your Amygdala: Brain-Based Strategies to Quiet the Anxious Brain
. Learn to lessen paralyzing worry and debilitating panic with coping skills and brain-based strategies. It is possible to retrain your brain!