According to the World Health Organization, anxiety is the leading mental health illness across the world. In fact, over 300 million or 1 in 5 people suffer from anxiety worldwide. In the US, the CDC conducted a study and found that 25.5% of people suffer from mild anxiety, 7.1% from medium anxiety and 4.1% categorized as having severe anxiety. That is a lot of people needing to stop anxiety.
This month I am going to be blogging and talking about anxiety and a book that I really enjoyed called Rewire the Anxious Brain by Catherine M Pittman, Ph.D., and Elizabeth M Karle, MLIS. I have to say that I found it extremely insightful. With all the people that suffer from it, this topic might help people stop anxiety from affecting their lives. So let’s begin.
Believe it or not, there are actually two ways that we can experience anxiety. My training in cognitive behavior therapy taught me that anxiety first comes from our thoughts. The feeling of anxiety then occurs and our behavior changes to fit that feeling. So for example, my thought might be “if I walk into this room, everyone is going to be looking at me”. Now that statement might sound familiar to anyone who experiences social anxiety. What generally tends to happen is after the thought occurs, there will be an anxious feeling that will cause us to want to avoid any situations that make us anxious. Scientists believe this type of anxiety comes from the prefrontal cortex.
According to Catherine Pittman, Ph.D., the cortex does the brain's thinking. It helps us to use logic and reason, problem-solving, impulse control, manage our emotional reactions, and plan for the future. The book states that the prefrontal cortex does not have a good memory. This comes into play when our amygdala activates us through that feeling of anxiety we'd also love to stop (the second way to experience anxiety).
Several years ago I had a client say to me “sometimes out of nowhere I just get this anxious feeling and I know for sure that I have not had a thought”. Now I was new at therapy and I automatically wanted to say, “no you have to have a thought first”, but I stopped myself because I remembered the fight, flight and freeze response. After some research and reading this book, I realized that in fact, we can also have a feelings-based anxiety response that doesn't just stop because our thoughts do. It's because this response comes from our amygdala without any thoughts occurring beforehand.
Our amygdala does not just produce the fight, flight or freeze response. It's also responsible for love and bonding together with our anger response. Now our amygdala is not based on logic or rational but based on associations. Take for example someone that dislikes the smell of lilacs but loves thunderstorms. This person could have fallen off of a skateboard, broken their leg and smelt lilacs while waiting for help. What happened was that the brain registered the traumatic event when it happened. Afterwards, anything associated with it can cause anxiety, including the smell of lilacs.
With regards to thunderstorms, this same person could have experienced their parents bringing everyone to their room, drinking hot chocolate and telling funny stories on their parent’s bed while a storm raged outside. For that person, thunderstorms would be associated with a positive experience. So we begin to see that the key to stop anxiety lies, at least partially, in these associations.
Now remember, the prefrontal cortex does not have as good a memory as the amygdala. At times we're activated through our amygdala, causing us to feel confused as to why we are experiencing anxious feelings. In reality, our cortex doesn't know why, but the amygdala knows why. Take the above example, the person walks by lilacs during their daily commute, and cannot understand why they feel anxious. In this case, the amygdala has associated the smell of lilacs with a traumatic event. When the person hears thunder, however, the amygdala associates it with love and bonding and most probably hot chocolate.
Next week, we'll dive deeper into exactly where in the brain anxiety comes from and some of the processes that can lead to it.
At Clarity Health Solutions, we're all about putting insight into action for personal growth. We are located in Jupiter, but also offers telehealth services. So you can reach us whether you’re in our backyard or anywhere in Florida. If you would like help figuring integrating these insights into your life to stop anxiety, we can help, so book your appointment today.