Who Is Running The Show?
When it comes to dealing with anxiety, who is running the show? I thought of myself as being intelligent and rational. When depression and anxiety showed up, I would vaguely rationalise it by mumbling “brain chemicals” and “past events” to myself—telling myself that life isn’t supposed to be fair—then holding firm while the storm clouds passed. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
Depression has been a constant for me, and more often than not, anxiety has been its companion. More recently, anxiety has gained the upper hand. Over the last two years, I have suffered from anxiety more than at any time in my life. I’ve learned more than at any other stage of my life, too; that’s the beauty of being curious. The learning never stops, providing you keep your mind open.
Learning More About Anxiety
I’ve spoken at length to a psychiatrist, which has opened up new avenues to help my mental wellness. Exercise, meditation, mindfulness and medication helped with my depression. When dealing with anxiety, I undertook twenty cognitive behavioural therapy sessions (“CBT”). It was all new to me in the former conversations, despite two lengthy stints of psychotherapeutic psychotherapy in recent years. But psychiatry was a new conversation altogether. Amongst other things, it has helped me to understand the brain and its major components—an eye-opener.
The same could be said of CBT. I was somewhat cynical at the start; it all seemed simplistic. I think I was being an intellectual snob on reflection. It took me some time to realise I was overthinking it, looking for a secret unlock to a series of techniques that didn’t need much of a key. Again, it opened up a new horizon of thinking for me. In that, emotions and thoughts can be separated. Emotional reactions can be broken down and analysed, then reframed better. It’s an excellent technique for dealing with anxiety.
Who Is Who In My Brain?
I learned that my prefrontal cortex is the CEO of the brain. It orchestrates thoughts, acts as an executive function, leads planning and decision-making, and; modifies behaviours. Like most CEOs, it believes it’s in charge; until it isn’t.
The hippocampus stores memories. Think of it as the biographer of the brain. It recycles memories during dreams and sends them elsewhere in the brain. Close to the hippocampus is the amygdala, the brain’s fear centre. It helps to store memories, particularly emotions and physical sensations. Stress hormones are controlled by it, and it instigates fight, flight or freeze reactions. There is a lengthy explanation of the amygdala here.
I wouldn’t pretend to know the subtleties of the brain’s wiring. But a basic understanding has been an enormous help to me. The amygdala triggers fear, anxiety and aggression. Traumatic events in the past can leave a person vulnerable to fragments of memories that the hippocampus and amygdala have not fully processed; the person can have their fight, flight or freeze response triggered more easily. The prefrontal cortex may try to retain control but get pushed aside.
Reducing Anxiety Through Practice
This understanding does help, primarily when used in conjunction with CBT. I’m more conscious of what is happening around me and to me, and I’m being more mindful and can see some of the triggers as they appear. “Is my thought driven by emotion or by fact?” is a question I ask myself.
For more serious situations, I will fill in a thought record. I was dismissive of this practice; until I tried it a few times. What was the problem? Did it give rise to emotions, and how did they score one to ten?; what facts supported the emotion? Facts against the emotion? Once the facts for and against are weighed, how would you rate the emotion now? The amygdala can act in a split second long before the conscious mind can frame what is happening. Going back and reflecting on feelings, thoughts, and actions is very valuable.
It has helped develop a new capability for me when dealing with anxiety. I can do a thought record in my mind and on paper. As I practice, I can sometimes do one in real-time. I’m not sure if that’s mindfulness, self-awareness or live thought analysis, but whatever, it helps.
Can I Solve My Anxiety Issues?
Overall I am making progress when dealing with anxiety. It’s been a battle for sure. Taxing for me, sometimes taxing for those around me. The wiring goes back thousands of years. The human race wouldn’t exist with no amygdala and no fight or flight response; predators would have killed us long ago. The problem happens when the brain hasn’t processed past traumatic memories correctly or when the brain’s chemical balance is out of kilter. Both can lead to the underdevelopment of some areas and the finely balanced dance within the human brain getting out of kilter.
Can I solve my problems with anxiety entirely? Of course not, but I can improve the situation significantly. There is always something to learn. Always something to practice. My perspective is that while there is a new technique or tool to be explored, then the prospect of better mental health remains. I can get fitter physically, and I can also improve my mental wellness, and dealing with anxiety is crucial.
Also published on Medium.