To manage anxiety, you must first understand it. And to understand it, you must know your brain was not designed to make you happy; it was designed to help you stay safe and to stay alive.
In particular, I'm talking about the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with anxiety. The amygdala's main job is to keep us alive by detecting and responding to danger. It stores fearful experiences and takes note of anything that might cause us harm. As a result, it helps keep us safe, triggering an alarm response in the body before the conscious mind is even aware of a threat.
For example, if you were walking and a snake suddenly darted out at you, you would feel an immediate jolt of fear and jump backwards. This kind of instinctive response is exactly what you want in such scenarios; you don't want to waste valuable seconds assessing the snake's potential danger. In contrast, studies in which rats had their amygdala removed found they showed no fear in the presence of cats – not good for the rats, as a life without fear is likely to be a short one.
The downside is the amygdala has a "better safe than sorry" attitude. It would rather trigger hundreds of false alarms rather than risk missing one genuine threat, so it routinely triggers alarmed responses even when there is no danger. If you hear a sudden loud noise, for example, you might experience a jolt of fear; once you realise there is no danger, your amygdala begins to calm down again.
How often the amygdala sends these false alarms, how often we feel fear, is partly determined by how we live our lives. That is, 'our amygdalae tend to believe what we teach them', to quote American psychologist and blogger Dr Nick Wignall. Imagine, writes Wignall, that you're out hiking in the hills and you spot something up ahead of you, a dark curvy line. You can't make it out properly; could it be a snake? In the circumstances, it's likely your amygdala will fire up a little. You're nervous and your heart starts to beat a little faster.
Let's say you consider turning back, but instead you watch and wait. After 20 seconds, you notice the line hasn't moved so you take a few steps closer. You're nervous but willing to check out the situation. As you approach, you see the line moving a little but not like a snake. After a few more steps, you see the line is only a shadow from an overhanging tree. Your fear immediately goes down, but you've also taught your amygdala an important lesson; sometimes when hiking, what looks like a snake is often just a shadow, so it pays to pause and observe. The next time you go hiking, your amygdala will likely be a bit more relaxed and you can enjoy your walk.
Alternatively, let's say you don't pause and observe; instead, you run away. The good news: your anxiety immediately goes down. The bad news: your amygdala interprets your reaction as confirmation that the situation was dangerous, that dark curvy lines are a threat best avoided. Accordingly, the next time you go hiking, it will be even more on the lookout for potential threats and even more likely to trigger unpleasant false alarms. Over time, you may go on less adventurous hikes or even avoid them altogether, because the thought of them triggers so much anxiety. The more you constrict your activities, the more you teach your amygdala to see danger everywhere.
The moral: always ask what you are teaching your amygdala. 'What am I teaching my amygdala about plane flights when I pop a Xanax five minutes before I board my plane?’, asks Wignall. What are you teaching it about crowds when you keep declining invitations to socialise with friends in crowded places? What are you teaching it about unfamiliar situations when you think through every possible worst-case scenario associated with starting a new job?
To reduce anxiety, you have to retrain your amygdala. To do that, you must remember Wignall’s question and ask yourself: what am I teaching my amygdala?
(First published in Southern Star, September 3, 2020)