The increasing chaos we see in the world today and more even in our own neighborhoods can make us feel like we are constantly living on edge. The news, our government officials and even advertisements can use fear and the state of angst in the world for their own benefit. Please understand we are not saying that there are not real dangers and issues. However, what we are saying is living in a constant anxious state can be equally dangerous.
COVID19 infection counts, mass shootings, threats of war, violence, extreme acts of nature, even shortages of every day necessities now seem to have become the new normal in our daily lives. It can make all of us more unsettled.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorder people experience. Today it affects approximately forty to fifty million adults in the United States (Kessler et al. 2005). Given that daily threats and dangers in our lives have increased, it makes sense why so many people are experiencing anxiety-based problems.
While many of the things we fear never happen to us, and even if they do, all our anxieties and worries generally have done nothing to protect us.
When we experience high levels of fear, it really grabs our attention. It puts us into action mode. We are ready to fight, flee or freeze. Fear increases our body’s arousal and neurobiological activity. They are designed to help us cope with an adverse or uncertain, new situation. Whether we mask our fear with a tough act or run for cover, it can have a powerful effect on our thinking, our decisions and actions.
What Is Fear?
Fear is defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.”
Other authors have suggested that “Fear is defined as short lived, present focused, geared towards a specific threat…facilitating escape from threat. While anxiety, on the other hand, is defined as long acting, future and broadly focused towards diffusing a threat, and promoting excessive caution while approaching a potential threat which interferes with constructive coping” (Rewire Your Anxious Brain).
Fear and anxiety actually differ, fear is typically associated with a clear, present, and identifiable threat. For instance, you would be fearful if a bear started chasing you. However, anxiety often hits us when there is an absence of that pressing threat. It could happen as soon as you started thinking about going on a hike. This may because those woods are known for their brown bears. You could become anxious that you ‘might be’ in danger, or even urgent danger. In other words, we feel fear when we actually are in trouble. We feel anxiety when we have a sense of dread or discomfort but are not, at that moment, in danger.
We all experience anxiety; it is a natural human state and an important part of our lives. There is a positive side to anxiety, it can motivate us to take action. To aggressively look for solutions to our problems. The ‘right’ amount of anxiety can help us perform better and stimulate our imagination.
However, there is another side to anxiety. Unchecked anxiety causes us emotional, physical, and spiritual distress. When people do not deal with their anxiety, they are at risk for developing anxiety disorders such as panic attacks, phobias and obsessional behaviors.
When anxiety gets to these levels, it can have a truly painful and debilitating impact on our lives. In these cases, we need to get a handle on our anxiety. We need to understand how to deal with it so it no longer keeps us trapped.
Anxiety can limit people’s lives; some people spend hours worrying and playing out scenarios in their minds. Others remove elevators, bridges and planes off their daily routines. Some people may have a hard time leaving home, while for other individuals a fear of public speaking may threaten their jobs.
Research suggest we live in an ‘age of anxiety’. Both positively and negatively, it has an impact in our work, the way we interact with friends and family and even our attitudes about life. Science tells us real or imagined threats can trigger the same anxiety response in us. Traumatic events early in life can etch pathways of fear into our brains.
For example, emotional abandonment is the result of a significant person in our life discarding you, dismissing you, devaluing you, or not acknowledging you. This type of “invisible injury” causes great harm to the recipient. People need to feel they matter to others. Being invisible to your loved ones is an existential wound. It causes you to feel you don’t matter and questions your right to even exist. Research has found that the primary ways to injure a person is to remove him or her from significant human contact, particularly communication. This lack of contact can cause us anxiousness in our relationships. As a result we will often develop a mistrust of people and relationships.
Usually, we feel anxious when the outcome of a future situation is uncertain. For example, when we waiting for a test grade or a medical report. Anxiety can also become a part of our stressful daily living activities. When we are overly stressed, we become nervous, and sometimes more easily prone to anger.
Anxiety has the power to rob a person of the capacity to complete many of the basic activities of life. However, there is hope for anxiety sufferers. Understanding the cause of our struggles, can help us find a path to peace and confidence. Research and knowledge about the brain structures that create anxiety contribute to this understanding.
In the past two decades, research has been conducted on the neurological underpinnings of anxiety in a variety of laboratories around the world (Rewiring the brain). Structures in the brain that detect threats and initiate protective responses have been identified. In addition, imaging and tomography scans have provided detailed information about how the human brain responds in a variety of situations. As a result, we now have a better understanding of the causes of fear and anxiety.
For example, research has shown why a fear-based event becomes deeply embedded into our long-term memory. What researchers have identified is during these times, the “stress hormone” cortisol and the “love hormone” oxytocin work together to create a double whammy of deep-rooted, fear-based memories.
Two Distinct Brain Responses to Anxiety
Consequently, we have learned that anxiety is the result of constant chatter between a number of different brain regions. We are calling this the fear zone. No one brain region drives anxiety on its own. Instead, interactions among many brain areas are all important in how we experience anxiety.
To explain how this works, we splits the brain into two parts: a cognitive brain and an emotional brain. he cortex, where our thoughts come together, is the cognitive brain. It is the thinking part of the brain. This part enables us to reason, create language, and engage in complicated thinking, such as logic and mathematics.
Treating anxiety that target the cortex are numerous and typically focus on cognitions or “thinking” remedies. It is important to note that thoughts originating in the cortex may be the cause of anxiety, or they may have the effect of increasing or decreasing anxiety.
The amygdala (uh-MIG-dull-uhs) is located deep inside the brain, two small, almond-shaped structures, one on each side of the brain. They are part of the emotional brain. The amygdala is the zone often responsible for our flight, fight or freeze responses. The role of the amygdala is to attach emotional significance to situations and objects or to form emotional memories. The amygdala is small, but it has influence over love, bonding, sexual behavior, anger, aggression, and fear.
Both the cortex and the amygdala play roles in our understanding of anxiety. Some types of anxiety are more associated with the cortex, while others can be attributed to the amygdala.
You sensitively believe snakes are terrifying (the emotional brain). However, you can rationalize that they are very rare where you are headed to camp (using the cognitive brain). When this happens, the cognitive zone overtakes and tames the emotional fear zone. In fact, we only feel anxiety when signals from the emotional brain overpower the cognitive brain.
Anxiety can help us stay alert and focused. It can get our hearts pounding and give us the extra adrenaline we need to, win a race, confront our boss, talk to our spouse or give a speech. However, it can also mess with our lives and paralyze us to the point of inaction.
Removing all anxiety and fear from our lives is not realistic or even necessary. Take for example some who is afraid of heights, they might miss out on a few things in life by not going to the top floor of buildings, but they will probably get along just fine. They will most likely stay away from windows on upper floors. However, a firefighter would mostly likely struggle with this fear. Especially if they were called to an apartment building or saving someone’s cat from a tree.
This helps us to understand it is not our goal or even healthy to eliminate all anxiety The best thing to do is to work on the anxieties that interfere with your ability to live your life in the way you desire.
You can do this in your own life by thinking of ways that anxiety or avoidance of anxiety interferes with your life. Try to think, does your anxiety keep you from doing things like taking a trip, interviewing for a new job, writing a blog or confronting a problem with a relative?
Now, which of these do you want to change? Some of these examples may be riddled with anxiety but not interfere with your life. We want to focus on those situations in which reducing anxiety will make a real difference in your life. In part two of this article, we are going to give you constructive ways to work on anxiety with both zones of your brain.
Please remember if your worry or panic feels out of control, and especially if you feel like you may hurt yourself, then talking to someone is really important. Get immediate assistance from the Depression Helpline — 1–800–273-TALK (8255).