If you suffer from anxiety you know that often logic does not seem to stop it.
If talking about our fears and reasoning them out doesn’t reduce anxiety, then what will?
Neuroscience provides an explanation of why anxiety can be illogical by helping us understand what is happening in the brain when an anxiety reaction happens.
The part of the brain that sets off the anxiety response is an almond shaped structure near the brainstem called the amygdala - and the key to reducing anxiety lies in how the amygdala learns.
The amygdala doesn’t learn through words or logic. Telling yourself not to fear something and even understanding why, doesn’t have much impact on the amygdala.
The amygdala learns by association. It associates danger with some aspect of an experience that was felt as dangerous - and then it sets off an anxiety response every time it comes across something similar.
This makes sense from a survival perspective when you consider the protective function of anxiety. Making associations between situations that were dangerous with current situations could help us avoid the danger…
…But it also has a major pitfall.
The problem is that the amygdala can make associations with danger where no likely danger exists.
Since we tend to avoid what makes us anxious, the amygdala in many cases never gets to retest its learning about the feared situation or factor - at least not fully.
And here lies a giant opportunity to retrain the amygdala. It’s called exposure therapy.
Although this may sound fancy and modern the idea of exposure therapy has been around well before the field of psychology developed. It shows up in expressions like, “if you fall off a horse, get right back on.” This points to the fact that allowing something to be avoided, something that is not inherently dangerous, re-enforces the association of danger to it.
By “getting right back on the horse,” you allow the amygdala to learn, through direct experience, that riding a horse is not inherently dangerous.
Another point about how the amygdala learns is important to note here. The amygdala only learns when it is activated. Just like you need hot water to make tea, you need the amygdala in its anxiety reaction phase in order to teach it something new.
So exposure is going to be somewhat uncomfortable as you will feel anxious as you stay with an anxiety provoking situation long enough for the amygdala to learn that the anxiety trigger is not dangerous. Typically we are looking for the anxiety to drop by half, not to go to zero. This can happen surprisingly quickly, but it’s really important in terms of exposure therapy working effectively, to stay with the anxiety provoking situation or element without distraction or avoidance until the symptoms of anxiety drop.
Learning to retrain your amygdala can be very empowering and can change how you think about anxiety.
Instead of anxiety pushing you to avoid, it can serve as a signal that you’ve got your amygdala’s attention - and that means that it’s ready to learn.
How do thoughts and images in the mind play into anxiety?
It’s important to note that in simple terms, the amygdala is paying close attention to your thoughts and it can react to a thought or image just as readily as to a physical event or trigger.
Thoughts or images in your mind can ignite an anxiety reaction via the amygdala even though they do not directly cause the anxiety.
Therefore part of working with anxiety is learning how to manage thoughts or images that ignite anxiety. This cognitive part of the process can be done alongside exposure therapy.
It could involve learning techniques to help disidentify (unhook) from thoughts, (known as cognitive defusion); learning to identify distorted thinking (cognitive distortions) and interrupt and balance them out (cognitive restructuring) or creating coping thoughts to give us positively framed reminders as we deal with very uncomfortable feelings.
The good news about anxiety is that the mechanisms that ignite it and cause the reaction as well as how to interrupt and change it are well understood.
There are tools such as a free app called MindShift, created by Anxiety Canada, to help you apply this understanding and professional help could be an option for those feel they need support and guidance.
Disclaimer: this article is meant to provide an overview of how anxiety can be understood, not as advice or guidance.
John Woychuk is a Canadian Certified Counsellor (CCC) with the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association and a Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional. Feel free to contact us to book a no-cost initial consultation.