Anxiety is a natural human condition. Knowing anxiety systems and distinguishing it from fear helped me. I learned to manage my anxiety and keep it under control with simple habits. Science and experiments helped me reduce my anxiety and enjoy a joyful life, despite many challenges in front of me.
Everyone experiences anxiety. It is part of our survival mechanism.
The amygdala creates anxiety. It is part of the limbic system in our brain. I want to touch on the limbic system because it is related to anxiety, fear and our emotional state. The limbic system is the emotional part of the brain.
The amygdala serves the purpose of survival.
I don't want to go into anatomic details. You can learn more about the physiological aspect of amygdala from the neuroscience site.
Let me share my approach in dealing with anxiety.
As part of my focus on mental health, my first approach is to accept the anxiety, understand anxiety symptoms, and root causes. To emphasize, anxiety is a natural human condition created by the amygdala.
As a survival mechanism in human physiology, the amygdala has many functions. The primary purposes of the amygdala are dealing with anxiety and fear.
We need to understand fear and anxiety are two different conditions.
What is the difference between fear and anxiety?
Fear is created for known dangerous situations. However, anxiety can occur without real life-threatening conditions when no fear is associated with the conditions. In simple terms, anxiety can occur when there is no danger.
The funny part we are concerned when there is no real danger. It is a paradoxical situation. We suffer unnecessarily.
Amygdala is a unique system. We cannot directly and consciously control the amygdala.
Knowing this fact has a tremendous impact on our decisions and the outcomes we create in our lives.
The reason we cannot control amygdala is that it is not part of our cognitive system (thinking brain, a.k.a. neocortex).
Amygdala is a survival alert system.
This alert system cannot be directly controlled with our thoughts and intentions because it functions beyond our thinking brain.
But by using our thinking, we can influence the amygdala. This is the crucial merit of my point.
We need to understand the function of the amygdala. It is essential to know the biological mechanism and anxiety symptoms. This little knowledge and understanding can improve our capability to deal with anxiety effectively.
There is another factor that we need to consider from the brain functionality perspective. This critical factor constitutes the alerts from the neocortex can also trigger the amygdala. This factor can be learned, and practical measures can be applied to reduce anxiety-generating conditions.
Let me briefly explain the role of the amygdala for creating anxiety.
The amygdala observes and senses the risky situations and the danger for our survival. I am not referring to the real threat here. My point is risky perceptual possibilities.
These perceptual conditions are hard-coded in the amygdala. We are all different. Each person's amygdala code can be different. It depends on life experiences and environmental factors.
The amygdala monitors life threats such as a sudden noise, extreme physical conditions, or sufferings.
The amygdala has reliable and fast neural connections to our nervous system, endocrine system, and the vital organs in our bodies. The amygdala acts much faster than the neocortex (thinking brain) does.
We need to understand the functional difference between the amygdala and the neocortex.
The neocortex is the most recently evolved thinking part of the cortex. This part of the brain is the main distinguishing factor between humans and animals.
Here is a critical point to know. We can experience the anxiety symptoms after the amygdala is activated for some biological and psychological conditions. There may be other unknown reasons.
The cortex has no clue during the activation period. Biologically, our cortex runs much slower than the amygdala. Therefore, we don't have direct control over the amygdala.
On the other hand, our cortex, which is part of our cerebral (cognitive) system, is within our control. By using the capabilities of the cortex, we think, rationalize, plan, and execute actions.
Ironically, our valuable cortex has no idea about the working mechanism of the amygdala. There is no direct connection between cortex and the amygdala. The amygdala overwrites the rules and has no time to wait for the context to come up with some solution. Our thinking brain only knows the amygdala generated alerts when our anxiety symptoms start manifesting.
Therefore, it is not always possible to control our anxiety when it is being triggered. Without knowing this biological fact, anxiety can be seen as mysteries. In reality, anxiety is a feeling generated by activation of the amygdala alerts.
The good news is that we can tame the overactive amygdala to some extent. This is within our control, and there are proven techniques. This is the premise of this article.
After this brief background, let me share the practical ways to deal with anxiety.
After my studies in cognitive science and a lot of experiments, I learned to tame my amygdala.
One of the common techniques to tame the amygdala is gradual exposure to the anxiety creating conditions and situations. For example, driving in heavy traffic creates anxiety for me. I continue driving at least in a short period by being aware of the anxiety symptoms. Being aware of these feelings and using my thinking brain to rationalize the situations helped me re-wire the amygdala.
The next technique was the repetitive exposure approach. Repetitions can new neural pathways over some time. The habits can result in reducing the over-activation in those conditions and situations.
Even though our thinking brain cannot stop the amygdala from generating anxiety instantly, the repetitive exposure approach can be a powerful tool to tame the amygdala. The good news is that amygdala can learn and adapt.
How can our learning brain help us to tame amygdala?
I observed my anxiety patterns, recorded them, and addressed the symptoms with a mindfulness plan.
The causes of anxiety can be illogical because our amygdala does not operate based on logic. The amygdala works on images, sounds, and biological reactions, posing a risk or danger to our survival.
For example, a sudden scary sound or an appearance of a hazardous object out of our conscious awareness can activate the amygdala instantly. As soon as the amygdala senses a dangerous situation (real or perceived), it releases neurotransmitters and potent hormones to run, fight, or freeze.
These high volumes of hormones caused by activation of the amygdala in our bloodstream are the root causes of our anxiety.
I learned that excessive adrenaline, epinephrine, and cortisol in the bloodstream could be the leading causes of our anxiety. These hormones energize us to be alert, ready for run, and fight.
When we know the anxiety-producing hormones, increasing in our bloodstream, we can use our thinking brain to take the actions. This procedure is part of the magical formula to cope with anxiety effectively.
We can leverage our hormones and neurotransmitters to our advantage to reduce anxiety consciously. What can we do?
We know that physical exercise can burn excessive adrenaline and provide us with temporary relief. Therefore, physical activity, especially in aerobic form, can be an effective strategy to cope with anxiety to some extent.
I also used mindfulness to control my muscles. Mindful muscle relaxation, especially with visualization techniques, helped me reduce and balance these hormones. When these hormones diminished, I felt relief from anxiety symptoms.
These two approaches helped me to move from the fight and flight mode to a stable state. Our bodies are designed on homeostasis. It means stable equilibrium among interdependent components in our biological systems.
The most useful technique, from my experience, is to tame the amygdala by using capabilities of our thinking brain. When I learned this technique during my cognitive science studies, I started introducing gradual exposure to anxiety, creating situations.
For example, I used to have a terrifying feeling of heights. Even though I knew it was a safe situation, I could not look at the windows from the 95th floor of a building I used to work.
As I started gradual exposure to the anxiety creating situations with cognitive skills such as mindfulness, positive self-talk, questioning the perceptions, and living in the moment with full attention and focus helped me relieve my anxiety to a certain degree.
This pragmatic anxiety coping technique is commonly used by the CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) practitioners successfully. Many studies proved that the use of CBT could be as effective as anxiety medications.
In my view, applying the CBT can be more important as the techniques can address the root causes (e.g., amygdala activation), whereas medication only can treat the symptoms. When the effect of the medicine goes, the symptoms return. Some CBT experts recommend both approaches based on the conditions.
By taking personal responsibility and using these proven techniques, I became my own therapist for coping with the anxiety to some extent.
I do not undermine anxiety as a mental disease, biological, neurological, and psychological condition. Anxiety is a broad, serious, and complex phenomenon posing many unknowns. Therefore, chronic and overwhelming conditions certainly require assistance from mental health professionals.
However, knowing the root causes of anxiety and taking personal responsibility to tame our amygdala with physical exercise, mindfulness, CBT, and exposure therapies, we can proactively and preventatively deal with day-to-day mild anxiety, especially in these critical times.
Reducing anxiety can alleviate stress and increase the quality of our lives. With reduced anxiety, we can taste joy and experience a meaningful life.
Life sometimes gets more challenging for some of us. I always face challenges in my life challenges. During these challenging times, I learned to be more mindful of anxiety-creating situations such as economic, political, environmental, public health, and many more emerging global threats.
The best measure I learned was to prevent frequent activation of the amygdala and use smart techniques to calm down when it is activated. This awareness can make a noticeable difference for us to enjoy a higher quality of life.
Thank you for reading my perspectives.
If you enjoyed this story, you might also check my other stories on News Break.
If you liked this story, you may check my other articles on News Break.