Skill #9: How Anxiety Affects Your Brain

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How does anxiety affect your  brain? When your deep brain perceives a threat, it turns on the anxiety response. Anxiety turns down your ability to think, and your brain goes into a protective reactive mode called the fight/flight/freeze response. This physical reaction that your brain and body has is a huge part of anxiety, and it makes it hard to solve problems and control our behaviors. When you learn to identify the fight/flight/freeze response, you can learn techniques to calm yourself down, get thinking again, and respond differently.

How Anxiety Affects Me

This may surprise some of you to hear, but when I teach in front of large groups I get all nervous; my hands start sweating and go ice cold, I get shaky in my voice, and I often get that crazy stinky armpit sweat. Basically what’s happening is my brain sees all these people in the audience as a threat, and it essentially turns off the thinking part of my brain and goes into a protective/reactive mode. This is a huge part of anxiety, this physical reaction that our body has, and it makes it hard to solve problems and control our behaviors. 

In this section you’re going to learn what it feels like when your brain gets stuck in the limbic system, and you’ll learn a few ways to calm yourself down, turn on your thinking brain, and make better choices. 

Have you ever done something really dumb when you’ve been scared or stressed out or angry? You’re not alone. Have you ever wondered “Why do my hands get all cold and sweaty when I’m anxious?” or “Why is my stomach hurting when I’m worried?” 

Many people don’t know that the way their body responds to stress or anxiety is really a reaction intended to keep us safe from danger. Your brain has many different responses to emotions, but in this section we are mostly going to focus on the fear response because that’s the one that often leads to the worst reactivity on our part. We freeze, we get anxious, we feel hopeless, we get angry. All of this stems from the fear reaction in your brain. 

Understanding how your brain works can help you learn how to stop reacting to emotions, stop doing stupid stuff that you regret later, and live a happier life where your actions line up with who you want to be.  

The Triune Brain

Let’s talk about how your brilliant brain works. The brain is very complex, but to simplify, there are three main systems in your brain: the brainstem, the limbic system, and the cortex. You’ve got three parts of your brain, and the survival and emotional parts of your brain take precedence over the thinking part of your brain. 

#1. The Brainstem

The brainstem is also known as the reptile brain because it’s ancient. Its job is to make sure our bodies stay alive. It runs your body’s basic systems like reflexes, eating, breathing, heart rate, and temperature. All information relayed from the body to the brain and vice versa must go through the brainstem. This part of your brain can keep you alive even when all the other parts are damaged. This is what a vegetative state is. This part of your brain takes precedence over the others, so when you pass out, this part of your brain keeps your heart beating when you aren’t thinking or feeling anything.

#2. The Limbic System

The limbic system is also called the mammalian brain. This is the part of the brain that manages emotions and relationships. If you imagine an antelope here, it has much greater emotional range than a snake; it can care for its young, work with other antelopes as a herd, and run away from predators. Anger, fear, anxiety, love, and jealousy are all rooted in this part of the brain. It is reactionary and emotional, and we’re going to learn why this is also brilliant, helpful, and purposeful. But if we don’t learn how to manage it, it can also lead to us being reactive and impulsive. This is the part of the brain where anxiety originates. 

The limbic system houses the amygdala and the hypothalamus. When the amygdala stimulates the hypothalamus, it initiates the fight-or-flight response. The hypothalamus sends signals to the adrenal glands to produce hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. The amygdala is also the part of the brain that learns what to be afraid of and what is safe. 

#3. The Cortex

The cortex houses the “human brain.”  This is the part that we often think of as our brain. It holds conscious thinking, reasoning, memory, planning for the future, organizing, prioritizing, complex problem-solving, decision-making, self-reflection, goals, direction, and values. Even though this part of the brain seems like the most important, it’s actually lowest in the hierarchy: survival usually takes precedence over thinking. 

The Effects of Stress on the Brain

For us to understand our emotions, it’s important to understand how our brains respond to threats. The deeper levels of the brain senses survival threats and triggers emotions, instincts, and subconscious drives that we aren’t even aware of. When we feel threatened, our brain shuts down the higher functions and activates a more primitive state. 

The greater the threat we’re facing, the deeper the level activated in our brain. So if we experience a massive drop in blood pressure, the brain stem turns off the cortex and turns off thinking. You black out and get horizontal. And that’s the deep brain trying to keep you alive.  However, this isn’t the most common way that our brain turns off. Usually when we’re highly emotional, we get stuck with the limbic system taking over.

The Fight/Flight/Freeze Response

Over the last thousands of years, humankind’s biggest struggle was for survival in the face of physical dangers like wild animals, heights, or attacks from warring groups. 

When faced with a real and immediate danger, like a tiger, our instincts take over to try to keep us safe. The limbic system triggers our protective response, and we have three main reactions: fight, run away, or freeze.  We don’t think this or choose this; it happens much faster than we can think. 

The Shutdown of the Thinking Brain

The FFF (fight/flight/freeze) reaction actually turns down the thinking part of our brain and sends power to the senses and the muscles. It’s kind of like in Star Trek when they lower the lights on the bridge to put all power to their weapons. The cortex actually gets sidelined, and the limbic system, the impulsive, reactionary, instinctive part of our brain that focuses purely on survival, gets amped up.  

Not thinking can be helpful if you’re facing a tiger because it’s not going to do you much good if you spend five minutes trying to plan out your next move only to get eaten. It isn’t much help, however, if your danger is public speaking and your prefrontal cortex just shuts down, or if you’re asking out a date and your brain turns off.

The Bodily Response

Our body does other things to try to keep us safe. It sends extra blood to the big muscles (for punching or running) and decreases blood flow to our hands and feet (that’s why your hands get cold and sweaty). 

It turns on the adrenal glands to pump out adrenaline to give you a quick burst of energy (this also gives you the shakes afterwards). 

It turns off the digestive system because it’s more important to escape that tiger than it is to digest that hamburger. This leads to people having a decreased appetite, a tight feeling in their gut, dry mouth, and potentially getting the runs, or even wetting themselves. 

It tightens the muscles, heightens some senses (vision becomes more pinpointed, leading to a decrease in peripheral vision, aka tunnel vision), and makes breaths shorter and shallower. Your heart rate also becomes faster.  

The fight/flight/freeze response turns off the immune system for a short time, and the body sweats to keep cool in case of physical exertion — that’s where that nasty pit sweat comes from. 

 

When there’s not a tiger but your brain perceives modern threats, like a work evaluation, a deadline, debt, or too much stimuli: 

The fight response often looks like anger, shouting, big movements, or muscle clenching. It can feel like blame, defensiveness, being critical, or attacking others physically or just verbally or even just inside our heads. 

The flight response looks like running away, escaping, avoiding perceived threats, procrastination, distraction, or trying not to think about a problem.  

With the freeze response there are typically reactions such as numbing, shrinking, or hiding. This reaction can keep us safe when fighting or running would put us in danger or when there is no chance of escape. The freeze response can feel like feeling detached from your body or emotions or the sensation of feeling heavy, frozen, leaden, or unable to move your muscles. This can serve a function of making us harder to find, it can make a predator less interested, (Check out the video of the Duck in the course or here), or the numbness can make the attack hurt less. 

Within the freeze response is the fawn response. When we can’t fight off or escape an attacker, we sometimes have the instinct to comply, appease them, or do anything to make them less angry or to soothe the situation. 

I talk about the freeze/fawn response more in my YouTube video on the freeze response and sexual assault, but I tell the story of how, when a stranger groped me on the street, my immediate instinctual reaction was to say “I’m sorry,” as if it was my fault.  This was not logical or rational. I didn’t plan it; it was just my instinct kicking in to keep me safe. 

The brain prioritizes survival over thinking, and this is brilliant because it makes us quick to react. For example, there have been times when my kids have fallen off of things, more times than I can count, and in a split second I’ve shot my hand out and caught them. I’m grateful for the limbic system and its role in keeping myself and my kids alive. This ability has helped humans survive for thousands of years. However, the FFF response has some downsides. 

The Drawbacks of the FFF Response

The fight/flight/freeze response is designed to work in short bursts in response to immediate and physical threats. It doesn’t work well when this response happens with perceived threats instead of actual threats.  

An example of this is if you need to give a presentation and your brain perceives a threat, your body responds in the same way as it would to a physical threat of harm. It can feel like your brain has just fallen out and you can’t think or speak clearly. These are kind of  important to giving a good presentation. 

We might have a FFF response to a work meeting, an email, a request from a friend, a complaint from a spouse, or any other number of things. 

The stress response is pretty safe and healthy to have in the short term, but when we don’t resolve the threat, our body is trapped in an elevated state over a long period of time. This leads to exhaustion, muscle tension, digestive problems, and frequent illnesses.  This long-term stress response can contribute to anxiety and depressive disorders. 

The fight/flight/freeze response also doesn’t help us solve emotional, cognitive, or relational problems. Most of those problems require more complex thinking and problem- solving that just can’t happen when your brain is in survival mode. 

The Techniques to Turn Off the FFF Response

You don’t have to feel trapped by this response. You can learn how to soothe your nervous system and diffuse your limbic system. You can train yourself to turn off the fight/flight/freeze response and return to a sense of calm. So here are the basic steps: 

  • Become aware of your triggers. When you can predict that you might get emotions, that gives you a bit of time to pause and slow down before you lose control.
  • Learn to notice your body’s signs (take the survey in the work book, skill #9). 
  • Notice that you are flooding. Pay attention to what’s happening inside of yourself. Notice your thoughts, sensations, and emotions from an observer position. 
  • Pause the conversation or situation for a few seconds. Say something like “Hang on a sec.”
  • Try to calm down. Remind yourself that you can solve these problems now or in the future. If tensions are too high in the moment, then
  • Ask for a break.
  • Commit to coming back to the issue at a certain time. This is very important!! If you don’t come back to resolve the problem, all those emotions stay trapped inside. 
  • Take time to self-soothe. Self-regulate — do something physically calming like grounding, deep breathing, or going for a walk to help your body process the chemicals that were released.
  • Come back to the problem from a calmer perspective. Sometimes we need help to do this. To see the problem freshly, you may want to work through the situation with a friend or counselor. 

 

In the next 9 sections of this course, you’re going to learn how to train your mind and body to respond differently to threats, resolve anxiety, and teach the body to return to calm quickly so that you can think clearly and solve problems. 

These skills include: 

  • Grounding 
  • Regulating your nervous system 
  • Coping skills
  • Breathing skills 
  • Mindfulness 
  • Relaxation skills 

In Summary

When your deep brain perceives a threat, it turns off your ability to think and goes into a protective/reactive mode called the FFF response. The physical reaction that our body has is a huge part of anxiety, and it makes it hard to solve problems and control our behaviors. When you learn to identify the FFF response, you can learn techniques to calm yourself down, get thinking again, and respond differently.

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