Many people who struggle with anxiety also have a difficult time using reason and making decisions. Even as they imagine alternative outcomes to various choices that are available, a feeling of doom sets in and their thinking is not clear.
The cause of this is more than worrying about a less than desirable outcome to a decision, what’s really going on is our fear response is interfering with our ability to reason on a neurological level.
The physiological and neurological effects of anxiety
When we perceive danger, our nervous system commands our bodies to ready for action. On a physiological and neurological level, the brain structure called the amygdala (responsible for emotion processing and threat detection) sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then signals the adrenal glands who respond by promptly pumping stress hormones into the bloodstream. When this happens the heart beats faster, our sensory system becomes heightened, blood is redirected away from internal organs and into the muscles, we are ready to run or fight.
In order to do it’s job well, the amygdala does more than signal the body to ready itself for conflict. It also inhibits the activity of the prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain is responsible for reason and higher cognitive functioning (among other important things). The amygdala inhibits the pre-frontal cortex while in fight or flight mode because the “lower” (reptilian brain) functions much faster than the “higher” reasoning brain. It takes much less time to turn and run than it does to stop and think … is that a bear or is it just a big friendly dog? If we stop and think in a dangerous situation we may lose our lives. This is the power of the reptilian brain, to over-ride the thinking brain in order to take care of our physical safety.
What we need to know
Chronic anxiety interferes with our ability to consistently use reason. Our lower brain is constantly on guard for danger and in doing its job, inhibits our higher thinking brain.
The fight or flight response is great for when we meet a bear in the woods but it’s not helpful for attending a social event that makes us feel nervous because we have social anxiety. It is also not useful for making decisions about life choices such as what job to accept, whether or not to go on a vacation to a place we’ve never been, or in extreme cases, what to buy in the grocery store.
Anxiety is not a trait we are meant to live with. We know that anxiety levels can be modified by learning about your anxiety and implementing strategies designed to consistently calm the stress response can actually change your brain.
CBT Reduces Excessive Amygdala Activity
Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is an effective therapeutic approach for helping to understand and reduce anxiety. A recent study has demonstrated that for patients with Social Anxiety Disorder, CBT reduced excessive amygdala activity and brought its functioning to normal levels. While we have known for a long time that CBT is effective for social anxiety, it is exciting to see evidence of actual changes in the brain as a result of therapy.
In my practice, I have worked with clients to help them learn to first receive and accept their feelings of anxiety, then to redirect their attention towards focusing and planning for the best case scenario. The technique prompts feelings of relief, calmness, and confidence. Over time these skills and changes in behavior help the client take control of their anxiety and achieve a greater sense of well-being.
If you would like to learn more you are welcome to call and book your first appointment or fill out the contact form and click send.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.