A Ridiculously Quick Summary of How Anxiety Works
Do you ever get nervous about going to a party full of people you don’t know and come up with a million reasons why you shouldn’t go? Do you sweat before a test, interview, or when a paper is being handed back in class? Are there words, noises, or even tones of voice that set your teeth on edge and make you irrationally scared or angry? If so, congrats! You’re a normal human with an anxiety-based fear response. All those people who tell you to “calm down,” “don’t worry about it,” or that the thing you want to avoid “is nothing” are jerks who don’t get it. You probably already know that your anxiety is irrational to at least some extent, and their condescending “recommendations” are not helping you stop being convinced that every bridge you drive over is going to break so that you fall in the water and drown. If you would like some non-condescending recommendations that can actually help you wrest control of your thoughts and reactions from the claws of anxiety, read on.
Where do all these feelings, thoughts, and reactions stem from? Your brain.
Which is full of bears.
Okay, not actually grizzlies or anything, but the parts we’re talking about here developed in response to dangerous situations like bears and can get tripped by real and metaphorical bears alike. Where did these metaphorical bear come from, you ask? Well, unless you were born with lipoid proteinosis or have other damage to your amygdala, they have lived in your brain from the moment of its formation. These bears have many names, but they all serve to freak the shit out of you whether it’s actually called for or not.
The human brain is really good at patterns — remembering them, creating them, or finding them in the environment where they don’t actually exist. This is why it’s so full of bears. One of the brain’s primary jobs is to keep a human being alive long enough to have kids and pass on its genes, so it is extra attentive to patterns that might kill us or prevent us from being killed. Bears (real, literal bears, not figurative in-your-head bears) are super dangerous to humans, and have been basically since the first human and bear met, shook hands, and then immediately descended into arguing about who was eating whose face. So your brain is constantly on the look out for danger, i.e. bears, and has a well-practiced pattern for dealing with them:
Step one: the thalamus receives sensory input.
Step two: the sensory cortex reviews the input and finds that it matches up with past input that has been shown to mean there is a bear.
Step three: the sensory cortex calls the hypothalamus and is all “Yo! There’s a bear!”
Step four: the hypothalamus judo chops the frontal lobe into unconsciousness so it can’t over think things, floods the body with adrenaline, decides whether to punch the bear or run away, and then makes the body do that.
Step five: the human is alive, the hypothalamus tells everyone to calm the fuck down, and the frontal lobe is left to groggily figure out what the hell just happened.
There are some times when the bear is so scary that the sensory cortex pulls in the amygdala instead of the hypothalamus and you just freeze in shock and terror instead of reacting, but that is tied more to PTSD than they lower level and more common anxieties we’re talking about right now.
So how does your brain know that something is a bear? Well, did you feel fear, shame, or guilt after you came upon it the last time? If so, it’s a bear. Do people whose judgement you trust think it’s a bear? Totally a bear! Does it have the potential to decrease your ability to pass on your genes? 100% bear.
Since your brain loves patterns, every time something is tagged as a bear and you experience a fight or flight response, that just makes its bear tag bigger in the tag cloud of your mental blog. That’s right: the human brain thinks that if it freaks out about something that means it was right about it being scary. Also, your brain is aware that bears can be sneaky and so is ready to expand its definition of bear at any moment. Soon, anything that reminds you even a little of a bear is now also classified as a bear, and triggering shortness of breath, shakiness, and a feeling like you’re having a heart attack. That’s why people who are afraid of spiders often scream when they see fake spiders, or even have an adrenaline response when they see pictures of arachnids.
To sum up, your brain is lazy and out to save you but not always super great at that because of its obsession with patterns and bears. The good news is that these exact conditions make it possible to hack your brain and convince it that there aren’t actually bears everywhere. The key is replacing the bear pattern with a non-bear pattern. It’s not easy – as noted earlier part of a fight or flight response is the limbic system using the hypothalamus to actually take control of the brain from the frontal lobe for a short period of time. This is why people who are frightened, panicky, or under a lot of stress struggle to form sentences: the part of their brain that forms sentences is at least partially offline. So how do you remove your bears? Practice. A lot of practice. Whether you go for cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, sensory-based coping skills, or my personal favorite: a combination of all of three, you will have to fight hard to unbear your brain. Convincing your limbic system that something it knows is dangerous will not kill it is an uphill climb.
It is doable, though. You have to train yourself in the same way you would for playing a sport, acting in a play, giving a speech, or taking a test: practice your skills when you’re calm. You want them to become second nature and associated with there being no bears so that when you use them to debear yourself it’s much easier. And remember: doing an activity you enjoy totally counts as an anti-bear skill. One of my personal favorites is telling people who dismiss your anxiety to go to hell.