Dealing With Anxiety in Difficult Times
How to understand anxiety symptoms, root causes, distinguish anxiety from fear, take practical & effective measures to cope
We notice that the level of anxiety is growing globally due to current situations caused by public health concerns. As it is on a massive scale, I want to provide a practical framework based on my studies and experience to deal with anxiety in these difficult times.
Anxiety is a natural human condition. We need to accept it.
From a physiological perspective, anxiety is created by the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system in our brain. The limbic system is the emotional part of the brain. The amygdala, specifically, serves the purpose of survival. You can learn more about the physiological aspect of amygdala from this link.
As a survival mechanism in human physiology, the amygdala has many functions. The primary purposes of the amygdala are dealing with anxiety and fear.
Fear and anxiety are two different conditions.
We must distinguish fear and anxiety and understand the underlying biological, psychological, and psychological aspects of them. For example, fear is created for known dangerous situations. However, anxiety can occur in the absence of real life-threatening conditions when no fear is associated with the conditions. In simple terms, anxiety can occur when there is no danger.
Since we are concerned when there is no real danger, this phenomenon poses paradoxical implications for human life. It causes us to suffer unnecessarily.
Amygdala is a unique system. We cannot directly and consciously control the amygdala. 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. However, understanding the function of the amygdala, its biological mechanism, and the manifesting anxiety symptoms, we 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.
The role of the amygdala for creating anxiety
The amygdala observes and senses the risky situations and the perceptual danger, which may affect our survival adversely. I am not referring to the real threat here. I am referring to the risky perceptual possibilities.
These perceptual conditions are hard-coded in the anatomy of the amygdala. This point implies that each person’s amygdala code can be different based on their life experiences and environmental factors.
The amygdala is a hard-coded system in our limbic part of the brain with common 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 does.
We need to understand the functional difference between the amygdala and the neocortex.
The neocortex is a specific part of the cerebral cortex. It is the most recently evolved thinking part of the cortex. This part of the brain is the main distinguishing factor between humans and animals. For the rest of the article, I use the term “cortex” to abbreviate the term “neocortex”.
We are only able to experience the anxiety symptoms after the amygdala is activated for some biological or psychological conditions and other unknown reasons. The cortex has no clue during the activation period. Biologically and physiologically, 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 and most straightforward terms, 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 in the industry. This is the premise of this article.
Practical ways to deal with anxiety
In this section, I want to give you a proven approach to tame our amygdala.
A well-known technique to tame the amygdala is gradual exposure to the anxiety creating conditions and situations. For example, driving in heavy traffic can create anxiety for most of us. In this case, we need to continue driving at least in a short period by being aware of the symptoms. Being aware of these feelings and using our thinking brain to rationalize the situations can start re-wiring the amygdala.
The repetitive exposure approach can help us continuously re-wire the amygdala by creating new neural pathways over some time and result in reducing the over-activation in those conditions and situations.
Even though the cortex (our thinking brain part) 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 has the capacity to learn and adapt.
How can we benefit the learning capacity of the amygdala leveraging our thinking brain?
Answering this question is critical to cope with anxiety effectively.
One practical way to use our thinking brain is observing our anxiety patterns, recording them, and addressing the symptoms with a mindfulness plan.
Why is this procedure important? The reason is this procedure can help re-wire amygdala to a preventative anxiety state.
What is so special about amygdala that we cannot control? There are two facts that we need to understand to answer this question. 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 which can pose 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, to fight, or to freeze.
These high volume of hormones caused by activation of the amygdala in our bloodstream are the root causes of our anxiety.
For example, excessive adrenaline, epinephrine, and cortisol in the bloodstream can be the leading causes of our anxiety. These hormones energize us to be alert, ready for run, and fight.
When we are aware of 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?
One practical solution is exercise. For example, 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.
Another practical use case is mindfulness to control our muscles. Mindful muscle relaxation, especially with visualization techniques, can help us reduce and balance these hormones hence can be useful to deal with anxiety.
These two approaches and techniques can help us to move from the fight and flight mode to a stable state. Our bodies are designed on homeostasis, which 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 was unable to look at the windows from the 95th floor of a building which 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, we can be our 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 the sustainable joy and experience a meaningful life.
In these difficult times, we need to be more mindful of anxiety-creating situations such as economic, political, environmental, public health, and many more emerging global threats.
The best measure is 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.