Don’t know why you’re anxious? Your primitive brain may have the answer.

Don’t know why you’re anxious? Your primitive brain may have the answer.

Cognitive psychologists, who like to think of us humans as very logical and rational, say that anxiety is useful because it sends a signal to the brain saying “change direction!” whenever we’re doing (or about to do) something dangerous. In this way, it acts in a similar way to pain. Pain itself is not the real problem but a signal that there is one – it might be indicating a bone fracture or appendicitis, for example. Pain gets our attention, and anxiety acts in a similar way to indicate that there’s something wrong.

Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive therapy (and grandfather of CBT), said that we are constructed “in such a way as to ascribe great significance to the experience of anxiety”, so that we’ll feel compelled to do something about it. It’s such an uncomfortable feeling, in other words, that we’ll stop doing whatever is causing anxiety, and so remain safe.

But this isn’t always the case. It’s entirely possible to experience anxiety but be unable to identify its cause. In fact, many people suffering from high levels of generalised anxiety don’t know why they feel this way, and may feel bad about themselves for this perceived incompetence. So what’s happening in these cases?

Our primitive brain decides

As the great trauma expert Peter Levine pointed out, there’s a difference between anxiety designed to produce a volitional response (e.g. stop driving so fast) and one that’s designed to produce an involuntary response or reaction. And here lies the answer for the more mystifying types of anxiety – they stem from an area of the brain that controls all our involuntary actions (such as breathing and heart rate). This is the sub-cortical section of the brain, which also houses our basic animal instincts, including the supreme instinct to survive. When this part of the brain is triggered into perceiving a survival threat, it causes an instant, non-volitional reaction. It’s super-fast, because it’s not a good idea to be wondering about whether that car heading straight for you might swerve at the last minute. You see it coming, and you’ve leaped out of the way before thinking about it. This is very different to the volitional anxiety that Beck was talking about, which might make you carefully step back from a cliff.

The fast-reacting, involuntary kind of response that sees us jump away from a snake comes from the primitive, sub-cortical part of our brain that we share with other mammals. It assesses any threat in the environment and forces us into taking involuntary action if survival demands this. But our animal brain (the ‘reptilian’ and limbic parts of the brain) does more than this – it also immediately assesses whether we can escape or fight back, or are trapped and can do nothing.

This unconscious decision – about whether to fight, take flight or freeze – becomes known to us through our reaction to the threat. If our animal brain has decided we can fight this or make a run for it, we may experience symptoms such as a tightening sensation across the neck, shoulders, arms and legs, rapid heartbeat, and a feeling of being ‘ready for action’. We have an active pattern of coping, and a set of actions that can arise and be completed.

But if our animal brain has decided that fighting or running won’t work, what happens is that our active forms of defence (fight/flight) are aborted. They arise but are quickly switched off – and it is this incompletion of the active coping mechanism that causes anxiety to follow from the event. We freeze, which is one of the last defences of any animal, and lock down any movements that we would wish to make to save ourselves. These incompleted responses, such as running or punching, are denied and locked down. Anxiety that seems to have ‘no reason’, is essentially the energy wrapped up in these unrealised defensive responses. The anxiety stems from times when we wanted to fight or run, but were trapped or overwhelmed, and had to contain our active defences, instead falling back on passive ones (the freeze response or even thanatosis, where the body appears to be dead).

Anxiety doesn’t arise from dangerous situations, but from a feeling of being unable to cope with them and take action to get out of them. Levine says that “ultimately we have only one fear, the fear of not being able to cope, of our own un-copability. Without active, available, defensive responses, we are unable to deal effectively with danger and so we are, proportionately, anxious”. And that anxiety does not go away over time. It remains in the mind and body.

This kind of anxiety can either erupt occasionally in the event of being triggered, or operate as a kind of background hum all the time.

It also can be said to result from trauma – which involved a feeling of being overwhelmed and unable to escape. But we’d remember that, wouldn’t we? Confusingly, not always. Sometimes the trauma occurred many years ago, in childhood (such as being bullied at school or frightened by an angry parent) or stemmed from an event that we remember but don’t realise has affected us in a very deep way (such as caring for a loved one when they were dying). Traumatic memories are different: they are not processed fully or correctly at the time (because they were too overwhelming to the system) and so they are inadequately processed and maladaptively stored. Instead of fitting into the autobiographical memory of our everyday lives, they remain ‘unfiled’ in some way, and continue to intrude, unbidden, into our lives at odd moments.

Which means that it’s quite possible to feel highly anxious, while not knowing why. But the not-knowing does not mean that the fear is illogical or unreachable, or that the sufferer is behaving stupidly in some way. Quite the opposite – the person suffering from this form of anxiety has had to be immensely brave at some point in their lives. This is where therapy can play a vital role, in helping someone to realise and release the emotions and actions that were put aside for survival, and genuinely let go.

‘A person suffering from this type of anxiety
has had to be incredibly brave at some point in their lives’

 

 

Self-help strategies for anxiety

If you feel that your anxiety is affecting your daily life, it’s good to check in with your doctor. There are some physical conditions that can cause anxiety, so ask your doctor for a full physical check-up, if possible, or to check for medical conditions known to cause symptoms of anxiety, such as hyperthyroidism, Vitamin B12 deficiency, or heart irregularities.

Once you’ve been reassured that there’s no physiological cause, there are many ways you can help calm the body and the mind. These two work on each other in a two-way system, so you can do things to calm the mind and they will slow down the body’s anxious reactions (this is known as working ‘top down’), or you can work on the body and notice how your mind begins to become more calm (this is known as working ‘bottom up’).

CALMING THE MIND

When we start associating certain things with making us anxious, we begin to avoid them. This is completely natural and ties in to our evolutionary psychology – anxiety is there as a prompt to keep us away from dangerous situations. However, when anxiety becomes a common or everyday state, it comes into play with situations that are not potentially dangerous in terms of our physical safety. And it turns out that avoiding things that make us anxious isn’t a good idea – research has shown that avoidance increases anxiety, rather than lessening it. So someone might start by avoiding large gatherings, then small parties, then even an outing with close friends, because the avoidance has fostered a sense of anxiety in ever-smaller situations. This means that anxiety is best overcome by facing your fears rather than avoiding them, and the earlier this is done, the easier it is to ease any anxiety that has become associated with particular things, people or events. No one needs to do this on their own, so be sure to seek professional help if this feels right for you.

Here are some other ways for calming the mind:

  • Mindfulness has proved to be especially useful as a way to ease anxiety both short- and long-term, so you might want to consider using a mindfulness app (such as Headspace) or website (I like AudioDharma.org but there are lots more to choose from). The Oxford Mindfulness Centre – home of mindfulness-based CBT – has lots of resources, including a great three-minute ‘Breathing-space Meditation’ to calm the mind and body – click here to listen now.
  • See your anxious thoughts as guesses, not facts. Your mind is trying to predict what might happen, but it might be wildly out! Are you basing your predictions on what happened in exactly the same situation in the past? And if so, how likely is it that every factor will be exactly the same? (The philosopher Heraclitus famously said that “we never step into the same river twice”.)
  • Remember that just as our muscles are there to allow us to stretch and move, the brain is there to produce thoughts. Some of these are useful, and some are less so, while others are not useful at all. Spend some time when you’re not anxious just noticing some of the thoughts that arise in your mind. Perhaps think of them as clouds passing by, in front of your awareness – you can pick one or two up, or choose to let them all just float on by. There’s no need to act or even react to our thoughts – noticing them in a detached way allows us time to evaluate their usefulness and respond with choice.
  • Be aware that the mind can also make up whole stories, especially about ourselves (perhaps that we are unlovable or worthless or ‘stupid’). These messages are likely to have evolved from past experiences, and do not necessarily bear any relation to any truths about ourselves. If you have had difficult relationships in the past – with family members, friends or work colleagues, for instance – it’s possible that you’ve picked up faulty information (this is a useful area to explore in counselling). Notice any thoughts or stories like this and allow them to float on by. If they’re ‘sticky’, write them down or draw something that represents them. That way they have been expressed, and you can always come back to them later.
  • Broaden the picture. It’s possible to become very drawn to one particular aspect of a situation and become scared by that. Broaden your view, so that when you consider the situation again, it’s just one part of a much larger picture in your mind. If you like, you can ‘zoom out’ all the way to a satellite view of earth. Or imagine how you’ll think about this situation in 10 years’ time. Give yourself more distance, either geographically or in time. How big does the problem seem now?
  • Stay in the present. Look around you now, and notice the colours, sounds and shapes. What’s moving? What’s still? Are there any smells? Is any part of your body touching the ground or a piece of furniture? How is it, being in this body, today, here and now?

CALMING THE BODY

Here are a few effective ways of calming the body (the mind will follow!)

  • Reduce caffeine intake to 300 mg or less per day (that’s two cups of filtered coffee or three cups of instant)
  • Do some physical exercise every day for at least 30 minutes (even a brisk walk will do, but a run is even better)
  • Spend time doing things you love – make sure you’ve got room in your weekly schedule for fun stuff
  • Practise breathing exercises when you’re feeling anxious and just at occasional times during the day. Breathe gently in, drawing the breath down to your lower abdomen (as though you’re blowing up a balloon in your belly), hold the breath for a count of three, and then gently breathe out of your mouth as slowly as possible. Try to make the out-breath at least twice as long as the in-breath. Don’t gulp in the air, because that can cause the physical symptoms of panic. Take it slow, and focus on the slow out-breath. Repeat at least three times whenever you want to calm the mind and body.
  • Everyone has personal favourites (or ‘tools’) too, which they can use to restore balance to the body and mind, such as music, reading, dancing or swimming.

Lastly, it may be that anxiety has a unique meaning for you and actually does ‘make sense’ in a way that you haven’t yet realised. Once this is known, you have a very powerful way of reducing anxiety or even banishing it forever. I’ll look at this in my next post.

As always, thanks for reading.

Sarah Tomley is a counsellor working in Suffolk, UK (www.insightcounsellingipswich.com)