The Anxious Brain: Anxiety Therapy | Center for Growth Therapy

The Anxious Brain: Anxiety Therapy

Lancie , LCSW — Therapist, director of virginia office

The Anxious Brain: Anxiety Therapy: When one thinks about having anxiety there is often a stigma attached to the word. And the idea that you might need anxiety therapy can feel shameful or at best embarrassing. Anxiety is often associated with dysfunction, mental illness and/or uncomfortable feelings. Anxiety is actually a natural response in the brain created to help us attune to danger and aid in our ability to survive. Anxiety therapy simply refers to working with a therapist with specialized training in managing anxiety.

Our brains are created with a unique and wonderful ability to shut down our logical thinking when presented with extreme danger. When we perceive danger or extreme stress, the amygdala releases stress hormones in the brain which weakens the connection to the frontal lobe, specifically the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain which is generally responsible for our executive functioning skills, critical thinking, and decision making.

Imagine being able to examine a brain that is not in a constant state of fear. The Frontal lobe would be in control and allow the brain to respond to information with logical thinking and process decision making accordingly. Then imagine examining a brain that is presented with danger, for example, crossing the street and a car suddenly appears out of nowhere. One would observe the amygdala releasing stress hormones which shuts down logical thinking so the brain can respond quickly so as to move to safety. At that moment, an anxious brain is actually a healthy and lifesaving response.

So why does anxiety feel so debilitating? In order to answer this question we must first take another look at healthy anxiety.

In the beginning, when we were hunters and gathers, we needed anxiety to survive. Imagine a hunter in the woods who was attempting to provide food for their family. While hunting they cross paths with a bear. The hunter does not have time to think through the multiple approaches to solve this problem. If the hunter begins to think critically about the situation, for example: “should I turn and run, should I freeze, should I fight, do I use my left hand or right hand?” then it would be too late and the bear would have already attacked. Instead the amazing and powerful brain is flooded with stress hormones which creates a fight, flight or freeze response and the hunter has a better chance at survival.

A modern day example of a healthy anxious brain response: a person is driving a car and someone pulls out in front of them. By the time they think through all the possible ways to solve the problem, “should I turn to the left or the right, should I hit the brakes, should I slam into the car” they are already in an accident. However, our brain’s stress/anxiety response takes over, puts a foot on the brake and turns the steering wheel in order to avoid the accident. How amazing!!! This anxiety stuff is really life saving.

However, we are no longer hunters and gatherers who are physically active most of the day fighting to survive. Our brains were previously designed to be on high alert and the physical energy we exerted in survival mode helped balance our brain chemistry by providing regular endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. Over time we have become more sedentary people and as a result we are not producing the same amount of serotonin and endorphins needed for the brain to maintain its balance of chemicals. Since our physical activity has decreased and those natural chemicals are not being produced at the same rate, over time the anxious brain has become more of a problem for many individuals. Of course, we still face dangerous situations and we need the anxiety part of our brain for survival.

So if anxiety is meant to save us, why does it feel so horrible and unwanted? It is because most people who are suffering from extreme anxiety and panic are experiencing a sense of intense stress and feelings of danger in their day to day lives. The fight/flight/freeze or fix anxiety response is no longer just in reaction to an external survival response to a dangerous situation. It has become a response to our own thoughts, fears, traumatic history, and worry. Today most of us are not faced with bears while attempting to obtain our food for dinner, however, our brains are still the same. We still need protection from danger. Our brains continue to look for danger and want to protect us.

Anxiety on the surface can appear to come from nowhere. A person who wants to run out of a crowded store while in the middle of a panic attack on some level recognizes there is no clear and present danger to their survival. The only signal of danger that person is experiencing is inside their own body. Many people report having an increase in heart rate, sweaty hands, trembling, tunnel vision, fear of passing out, fear of embarrassing themselves, a feeling they will die or go crazy, an intense need to flee to safety.

People who suffer from anxiety tend to have heightened arousal systems which communicates to the brain that danger or perceived danger is near and the brain becomes hijacked by amygdala stress hormones or anxiety responses. For some this type of an anxious brain is a result of a predisposed genetic make up. For others it may be a learned behavior as a result of how multiple generations of family members have related to or experienced stress/danger. This hyper arousal system can also be a result of experiencing trauma (including grief) at any age. It is also possible that an individual does not have any family history or trauma but their brains simply experience anxiety more intensely than others.

One of the main goals in anxiety therapy is to understand that today most feelings of anxiety are not a direct result of impending danger and therefore the panic/anxiety response is not logical. That is not to say that the experience is not scary, it is just reminding the brain there is no bear that needs to be fought off or run away from. This can be quite difficult since the body and brain are sending different signals that are screaming to be heard. If a person can remember that his/her arousal system is perceiving danger but there is no actual danger then that is the first step in re engaging the logical part of the brain and asking the frontal lobe to check back in and do its job. This may sound easy but it can take regular practice and patience with yourself.

In anxiety therapy tools are taught to help re-engage the prefrontal cortex. One way to remind the brain to think logically is to repeat your birthdate or social security number in your head. Try to repeat your address or add numbers in your head. Math calculations, directions (should I turn right or left, am I using my left foot or right foot,), observing colors, sizes, or shapes (that sign is red, that tag is blue and small), are all ways to wake up the logical part of your brain and ask it to become re engaged.

Another anxiety therapy tool for calming the hyperarousal system in the brain is to become reconnected to your body. Flex your toes inside your shoes, flex the calf muscles and release, flex the thigh muscles, the abdomen, the butt, hands, shoulders, raise your eyebrows, squinch up your whole face, press your lips together, put cold water on your face, hold ice cubes in your hands. These behaviors may seem silly, but they are helping decrease the stress hormones being released in your brain and waking up that part of you that is thinking step by step and feeling physical body sensations.

Remember, anxiety is still needed today. We do not want to get rid of all the anxiety in our brains. Anxiety is needed to wake up in the morning and get to work. That little bit of fear or worry over losing a job or disappointing a boss is healthy and keeps us motivated and moving. Anxiety is still necessary to signal if there is danger that needs to be attuned to when we are walking down a street alone.

If you are suffering from severe anxiety or panic attacks that are interfering in your day to day life, understanding how your brain works is just the first step on your journey to beginning to reclaim your peace. Building a strong support system with family, friends and seeking professional anxiety therapy is going to be an important part of reclaiming your life. Your brain is not broken or crazy. It is doing what brains were designed to do. It just needs help differentiating between an anxious brain’s hyperarousal response and real physical or psychological danger.

If you find yourself wanting to talk with a professional about having an anxious brain, and are interested in anxiety therapy, you can self schedule an online or an inperson therapy session at The Center For Growth. We have inPerson offices in Mechanicsville VA, Ocean City NJ, Santa Fe NM, and Philadelphia PA. We work with clients virtually in PA, NJ, GA, FL, NM and VA.

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