Let’s think of anxiety as the body’s natural alarm system. If the house were our body, the back garden our environment, and the alarm system our brain, we would expect an alarm to ring loudly if a dangerous intruder were to enter the back garden of our home. After a while, when it turns out our intruder was in fact just a fox looking for a late night snack, our alarm shuts off and the house returns to its normal state of quiet. However, in some cases this alarm system can become very oversensitive and in time, start to detect any movement in the garden as a potential threat; a small mouse, falling leaves etc. Our alarm goes off repeatedly, it becomes harder to switch off and return to a state of quiet, until eventually everything is mistaken as a threat; better to be safe than sorry – the fox becomes as dangerous as the menacing intruder.
In effect, your brain has learned to give you an anxious response. This is very important when thought of in developmental terms; if you grew up in a household where shouting and abuse were commonplace, then you adapt to feelings of anxiety when faced with similar situations and you can become prone to looking out for potentially anxious situations (threats) even when they don’t exist. Your alarm system is working overtime, leaving you fearful, exhausted and unable to cope in certain situations.
Fear is a necessary physical response and is meant to be used in short bursts – think of how your body reacts when almost slipping over in the street – it adapts to this sudden danger with a beating heart, maybe sweaty palms and temporary shortness of breath. Once the danger is over, the body can return to normal quite quickly and your embarrassment thankfully subsides. However, with anxiety you get the same response from other fears that do not necessarily lead to danger; speaking in public, sitting an exam, confrontation with your boss, stepping onto that busy tube carriage. But your brain finds it hard to return to normal as you keep the response going by continually worrying about it. Your brain has, over time, mistakenly identified something as a threat and has become ‘wired’ for anxiety – so that any potentially undesirable event or emotion becomes cause for alarm.
So what exactly happens in our brains? The hippocampus and the amygdala are two parts of the limbic system of our brain – and both have important functions when it comes to memories and how we react to emotional situations, behaviour and emotional control. Our amygdala operates unconsciously – it responds to fear and gets us ready for fight or flight. Our hippocampus helps us to think reasonably, and to problem solve. When we are faced with fear, our amygdala goes online and hijacks our brain to keep us as safe as possible – but this means our hippocampus goes offline and we’re less able to think or act logically – fear has taken over for the sake of our survival.
Let’s use another example – being bitten by a dog. The amygdala is responsible for emotions and the hippocampus is responsible for the formulation of new memories and the emotions that relate to them. If you’d never seen a dog before and then got bit – you would remember this for the future to hopefully avoid getting bit again. In this example – the amygdala can sense the fear and the pain of the bite and your hippocampus can encode the sight of the dog, along with the pain and the fear, into a memory.
This is useful because, the next time you encounter a dog or something similar, the image can be matched with a ‘things that harm you’ memory and you will feel enough fear as a consequence to avoid the dog again. Your amygdala helps you to feel fear and wants to keep you safe, it alerts your autonomic nervous system to prepare you for danger and in the absence of any real danger, your body will calm down again. The stronger the emotional reaction to dogs the more likely it will get stored into your long-term memory as something that can harm you. If you have a panic attack in a particular shop, this will give you a very strong emotional reaction and your brain will take note, meaning the next time you enter the shop or a similar shop, your brain maymatch up the memory of the shop with something that is dangerous for you; therefore you automatically experience anxiety.
In this way, anxiety can become automatic as it has learned through experience. It’s therefore helpful to understand how your brain remembered to be anxious! Retraining your brain to be calm in situations that will notcause you harm can help to overcome some anxieties.