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“Why Can’t I Stop Worrying about This?” How Anxiety Affects Your Brain – Part 1 of 2

In my own experience, both personally and professionally, one of the most confusing things about anxiety is how irrational it can be –

“The doctor just told me that I’m fine.  So why am I still worried that something is wrong?  And why do I feel so tense?”

“Everyone has some conflict with their boss, from time to time.  So why am I afraid that she’s going to fire me now?  And why can’t I stop thinking about it?”

One of our biggest challenges, as human beings, is that we are simultaneously very smart and very dumb.  What I mean by that is this –

How Anxiety Works – Your body wants to fight, or run away

  1.  Thousands and thousands of years of human history have led us, as a species, to be very good at detecting threats.  Human beings are neither the strongest nor the fastest creatures on the planet, but we are arguably the smartest.  Humans have survived and adapted, over thousands of years, by being very good at detecting threats and then responding to those threats.
  2. However, throughout much of human history, we were responding to threats in the natural world – wild animals, natural disasters, the needs to find food and shelter in order to survive.  Our brains are literally wired to help us survive an encounter with a wild animal – Fight or Flee (Run!).  This response is called Fight or Flight, and it is the most basic, primitive function of each of our brains.
  3. The problem for us, in the modern world, is that in general, our lives no longer match the world that our brains are anticipating – most of us don’t encounter wild animals in the woods very often.  BUT, any kind of traumatic experience can trigger this same Fight or Flight response, and our bodies begin to panic.  All of our higher-order brain functions go offline, because we have detected a threat to our safety.
  4. And if you have experienced too much stress or trauma over time, then you start the Fight or Flight response on a regular basis. Ordinary, day-to-day experiences can trigger that response.  And then there you are, wondering why you feel sick to your stomach, and why you have broken out into a cold sweat on a winter day.

How Therapy Can Help with Anxiety

I will write more about how to MANAGE these panicky feelings in an upcoming post.  But many people take a lot of comfort in first being able to UNDERSTAND why they find themselves with such extremely anxious thoughts and feelings.  The good news is that talking to others engages the parts of our brains that are less primitive than our Fight or Flight responses – the higher-order functions of our brains come back online.  Talking about what we are experiencing begins to calm us down – this is the secret sauce in the field of mental health!  Thinking about our feelings and examining our thoughts, individually and with the help of others, can help us to gain clarity about what is bothering us and what we can do about it.  As the Serenity Prayer states so beautifully, we can learn to

“Accept the things I cannot change, [have the] courage to change the things I can, and [have] the wisdom to know the difference.”

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