- Mental Health
Your Mind - Curing Anxiety
How the Brain evokes Fear and Anxiety
When you sense something, there are two major pathways into your brain. Neurologists call these two pathways the low road and the high road. The low road refers to the emotional part of the brain. This route goes through the thalamus and the amygdala and takes only about 12 milliseconds for the signal to be processed. The high road refers to the intellectual part of your brain, which is routed through the hippocampus and signals take at least 30 to 40 milliseconds to be processed.
Because the low road is faster than the high road, we can often feel fear before we are even aware of what is causing the fear. This is a powerful survival mechanism for protecting us when danger appears. The low road is directly wired to our sympathetic nervous system, which can instantly prepare our body for flight, fight, or freeze.
An example of this can be seen if you walked into your kitchen and saw a snake on the floor. If you are like most people, you would immediately feel fear. Your pulse rate increase, your pupils would dilate and your mind would start focusing on threats. All this would occur in the instant before you were even aware of the snake due to the processing of the low road part of your brain.
In the next moment, the high part of your brain would become aware of the snake. The low road part of your brain will cause the high road part of your brain to be focused on the snake. Once the conscious part of your brain becomes aware of the snake, it can start analyzing the situation and deciding on a course of action.
For instance, your brain might decide that the snake was rubber and a fake. At that point, your system will stop activating the sympathetic nervous system and your body will calm down. If your brain decides that the snake is real, poisonous, and headed in your direction, then your level of fear will go up.
Why am I Afraid?
Because we have two sensory channels within our brain, we can often feel something that makes no sense to us. The low road may be saying "danger", but we may be unaware of what is causing it. Each sensory channel is capable of learning on its own.
For instance, if something bad happened to you on the first snowy day of your life as a child. You may feel a sense of dread from then on whenever it snows.
Now some of these feelings of dread may be irrational. Snow is generally not a sign of something bad happening. But others may just seem irrational, especially when you can't figure out what is causing them. For instance, maybe a previous partner would be unusually quiet or have a particular blank look on their face before suddenly lashing out at you. From then on, if a partner gets that blank look or is distracted by something, your low road may interpret that sensory channel as danger. You may feel anxiety or fear, but not really understand where it is coming from.
Your body can also get in a fear feedback loop. For instance, say your pulse rate increased due to some random reason. Your brain might perceive that change in body status as a signal of danger. This causes your sympathetic nervous system to go into high gear, creating even more of the signals that were causing fear to begin with. These feedback fear loops are fairly often seen at the hospitals and simply known as panic attacks.
The suppression or repression of long term dangers can also cause problems. For example, a person who smokes may be aware on one level of consciousness that it may cause cancer or emphysema. However, they may decide at another level of consciousness, that it won't affect them. They may be lying to themselves because they don't want to deal with the discomfort of withdrawal. These two cognitive beliefs will begin to conflict more and more with time. Anxiety and panic attacks can result from moments of clarity when they realize that they are killing themselves.
One last thing is that there is a low level of serotonin in many people who suffer from anxiety. Although scientists are not positive which is the cause and which is the effect or even if both are an effect of another cause. Further research may be needed, but it does appear that serotonin deficiency may contribute to anxiety. It is hypothesized that low levels of serotonin result in a much more activity in the sympathetic nervous system.
Technique for dealing with Anxiety
The first thing you need to do to deal with anxiety is to understand how it is formed. We have discussed that already. Also you should be aware that the majority of people suffer from some form of anxiety and that you are not alone or unusual. In fact ,these emotions are vital to our survival.
The second thing is to accept the fact that your body is feeling anxious. Accept this feeling the same way that you would accept feelings of hunger, thirst, or being hot or cold. Anxiety is not a state of mind that can be banished with a thought. It is an input signal from your body.
The third thing you need to do is to try and find the source of your anxiety. Is it a known fear? Is it a feeling you get when you around a certain person or area? Or is it something that you feel when you are alone without any distractions? Is it a past event? Remember, when you feel fear or anxiety, it can take hours or even days for the generated chemicals to be eliminated from your body.
Meditation can often help you to identify the source of your fear or anxiety. During most forms of meditation, you are shutting down the intellectual part of your brain. This makes it much easier to listen to the emotional parts of your body and mind and identify their exact sources.
If you can identify the source of your fear, then you can do a much better job of moderating it. For instance, you can use self talk like "I am feeling fear because I am walking at night through a dangerous part of town. This is my body helping to protect me" or "I feel fear because my husband is angry and I am afraid he might hit me." This will allow you to feel fear when it is appropriate and allow your body to quickly begin recovery when you are safe again. It will also make you more aware of the sources of your fear, so you can later take steps to eliminate them (like forming a plan to safely leave an abusive partner).
Intense fear can often take many hours or even a few days to completely dissipate. If you have just been through an experience that caused a lot of anxiety, you may not be able to sleep that night.
Some situations that cause anxiety and fear may be unavoidable. The best thing to do in that case is try to be proactive. The first thing to do is to get rid of all distractions and sit and think about your situation. Allow your mind to race and consider possible solutions to the problem. Even if you can't find a solution, your mind and body will at least be aware that you are putting out full effort and not ignoring the dangerous situation.
Some situations in life may be stressful and cause low levels of anxiety without the real danger of harm or death. An example might be a job with an abusive boss. In that case try to think of the worse thing that can happen like getting fired and how you would deal with it. Once you realize that the worst case event will not kill or destroy you, then you can look at the situation more objectively.
Here are some useful ways both short and long term to deal with anxiety:
- Play Action Oriented Video Games: I find taking out some aggression on a few monsters to be great for getting rid of anxiety or anger. The more mindless and action packed, the better in this regard. Plants versus Zombies is a great game for some people. Not only is it action packed, but it also includes a Zen garden to help relax the mind once you are done killing zombies.
- Go Jogging: When we are stressed, our body is ready to expend a large amount of energy. Just do what is natural and burn some of it off. Even a long walk can burn up some energy and sometimes be soothing at the same time.
- Watch a Comedy: I have a few movies that I love to watch when I am suffering from anxiety. My favorites for this include Galaxy Quest, Little Shop of Horrors, The Incredibles, My Super Ex-Girlfriend.
- Talking with a Friend: Most females will do this instinctively, but men should consider it too. Talking about your fears and anxieties can be a great way to see them from a different perspective. Sometimes just talking about them can take away their power to cause distress.
- Self Help Books: More of a long term strategy, self-Improvement can help you to understand yourself better.
- Become Self-Reliant: People who are self-reliant rarely suffer from overwhelming fears or anxiety. They have learned to trust in their own mind, body, skills, and experiences for taking care of themselves. When you become overly reliant of other people (or society), you become susceptible to their particular whims and problems. You are at risk to be abandoned. This dependence on other people will often result in unknown anxieties and fears.
- Eat a Healthy Diet: Eating foods high in L-tryptophan can naturally increase your level of serotonin. Other nutrients are necessary for proper regulation of a plethora of hormones involved in the brain, mind, and body.
- Get some Sunshine: The lack of sunshine is more of a problem with depression, but since some sunshine can increase levels of serotonin, you might see if it helps with your anxiety.
- Get a Cat: With their lackadaisical view of life, the quiet comfort of a cat can help you to relax. A fish tank with guppies or other hardy fish can help some people to relax, but avoid fish if taking care of them is stressful for you.
Remember, although anxiety and fear may be powerful emotions, you do not need to let them control your life. Instead, you can learn to listen to them and let them work with you. And ultimately, that is an important element of good mental health.