Anxiety in the Brain

Nov 05, 2023
anxiety in the brain

It goes by many names: anxiety, worry, nervousness, panic, discomfort, unease, apprehension, self-consciousness, insecurity, doubt, fear. Whatever you call it, this experience is unpleasant, to say the least. 

Whether you have normative anxiety (meaning natural, it's just the way humans work) or a full-blown anxiety disorder, every single one of us will feel anxious at some point. Many times, it goes beyond just making us a little uncomfortable and becomes so overwhelming or aversive that it stops us in our tracks, preventing us from leading the kinds of lives we long for. That's why the more we know about anxiety, the better. 


Why Do We Have Anxiety?

Anxiety is what keeps us safe. It is our body's built in warning system, designed to detect - and prevent - potential threats. 

Our minds are essentially pattern recognition software, and when they pick up on some sort of indication that a possible bad thing could happen to us, our fight-or-flight system gets activated (hello, anxiety!), with the goal of helping us escape or avoid the danger. It is one of the most primitive circuits in our brains, and It. Is. Powerful. 

But what's really going on inside our brains? Allow me to introduce the Caveman and the CEO. 


The Caveman and the CEO

Our brains are made of tons of interconnected parts that work together. For our purposes, we're going to simplify things a bit and focus on two specific parts, the stars of our emotion center and our logic center, respectively.


The Amygdala

The star of our emotion center (called the limbic system for my fellow brain nerds) is a little almond shaped guy called the amygdala (technically, we have two, one on each side, but go with me). I like to think of the amygdala as The Caveman.

The Caveman is incredibly powerful...but not very sophisticated. It doesn't speak English, which is why we can't reason with it. We'll come back to that...

The Caveman simply labels things as good or bad, safe or unsafe. There's no nuance or in between. When something happens that is bad or unsafe in some way, The Caveman makes note of it. 

It also makes note of anything associated with the bad thing. Think of it like connecting the dotsThis is bad. This is like that bad thing, so it's bad, too. This is also like that, so it's bad. Anything that is similar in any way gets coded as bad. These associations aren't always apparently logical, either. Sometimes dots get connected just because they happen around the same time (like a doctor's white coat getting associated with a painful shot).

Because our brains like to recognize patterns, anything even remotely connected to or associated with the bad thing gets lumped into the pattern...whether we consciously realize it or not. 

Ever felt anxious for no discernible reason? Your Caveman was picking up on something coded as bad - some sight, smell, taste, sound, or sensation, some tiny part of a pattern - then doing it's thing: sounding the alarms. 


The Prefrontal Cortex

The CEO (our prefrontal cortex) is the seat of our logic and reason. This is the part of our brain that does what's called executive functioning. It's the part that can deliberately think things through and anticipate possible outcomes, which means it can analyze and conclude that we might be in danger. 

If you've ever gone down the what if path and ended up at a place of anxiety, your CEO got you there. 

The CEO is more sophisticated, more capable of nuance, but it takes more time and effort to do its job than The Caveman. In part, that's because of how close they are to Grand Central Station.


The Thalamus

Any information coming into our brain goes to the thalamus first, which I think of as Grand Central Station (GCS).

GCS processes all incoming data, packages it up, and sends it out for review and instructions on what to do. It sends the info to both The Caveman and the CEO, and both process it for signs of danger.

The thing is, those packages get to The Caveman first. It's a closer stop to Grand Central Station, if you will. If The Caveman detects any hint of anything coded bad/unsafe...Alarm bells. Anxiety. Game over. The CEO doesn't get a chance to weigh in.

If The Caveman doesn't go off immediately, the CEO has a chance to take a look at the package and think things through. If the CEO figures out that this information could be foreshadowing danger, threat, or some other negative outcome, guess what it does...stamps it BAD and sends it to The Caveman, where The Caveman does his thing: Label it. Connect dots. Set off alarm bells. Anxiety. Game over. 


How Do We Deal with Anxiety?

Understanding that there are two pathways to anxiety and knowing the key players and how they work sheds light on things we can do to override and rewire our anxiety systems. Remember how I said The Caveman doesn't speak English? What I mean is that it operates outside of our logic and language, so you can't just ask it "What's going on, Caveman?" and you can't just tell it, "Chill out, dude. We're fine." So what do we do? 

We'll dive into that next week, so stay tuned!


"Anxiety is the reaction when a person faces some kind of destruction of his existence or that which he identifies with it." - Rollo May


Written by Dr. Ashley Smith

Peak Mind Co-founder

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