Anxiety is not just a bad feeling. It exists to help you survive
If you have started to research this disorder, these 16 biological facts about anxiety will help you understand how our bodies activate this alarm system as a response in order to protect you.
So if you are a beginner in learning about the biology of anxiety, you will love this list.
Let’s get started:
1) We were not born with anxiety. It’s a product of our life experiences
Our mammal brain designed it to alert us whenever we are at a threat to our survival, but we activate this alert system for things that are a lot less important than our survival. With time, your brain created more alarm than needed because you felt threatened by tiny cues that were relevant a long time ago.
2) People who suffer from anxiety worry primarily about 5 things: work, school, money, family, or health
Think about your situation and see if it falls under one of these categories. Most likely it does. 90% of the time, people worry about minor things. They are “worry-making machines”. Anxiety mostly happens around day-to-day life, such as: how to pay the bills, how an illness will impact finances, how to do well at a job interview, etc. It is not as much about existential issues such as happiness or the meaning of life.
3) Before you were 8 years old, you built some pathways in your brain. Whatever felt bad during those years wired the alarm system of your brain
If you work with a therapist to understand where anxiety started, you might find a link between today and the first 8 years of your life. Why 8 years? Because in those early ages, your brain was solidifying pathways of what to do when it was in danger. You may feel that you have anxiety for no reason. If you troubleshoot it, I am sure that you will find a pathway that was created in your brain which is triggering your sensation.
4) Panic disorder for a lot of people comes first after 6 to 8 months of stress
The stress theme is often the loss of something. You might remember but a panic disorder started as a worry and was upgraded to heightened stress that you have been trying to suppress and now you no longer can.
5) People who suffer from anxiety typically don’t like to change things, they don’t like to try new things
They are risk-averse. They find comfort in what is known and controlled.
6) If you have anxiety without worry, you should seek your primary care doctor before therapy
It’s important to rule out every medical possibility before trying to treat it as a mental health issue. Sometimes your body is telling you something but you might be interpreting it differently.
7) Trying to treat anxiety with rationality is too difficult. Rationality does not give you pleasure in the brain
You have to treat anxiety with different strategies. Using language to tell yourself to think differently is just a crutch. It may work short-term but not long-term.
8) Your brain understands two types of threats: physical and social
First, your brain will prioritize physical threats and once you are safe, your brain will scan for social threats. Do not expect this to change, it has been like this for millions of years.
9) Why don’t animals have anxiety? Because they have small brains
We have large brains, which enables our capacity to anticipate threats. If we don’t have a threat, we find one somehow. It’s impossible for us to leave life without worry. So worry is normal, the issue is, what worry about, can you problem-solve or can you ignore? Animals who are faced with threats focus on their next step to survive. We already have our next steps pre-defined for us.
10) People who suffer from anxiety have a constant talk in their brains
Since they talk too much, they suppress visual problem-solving. Talking relieves them from somatic arousal but prevents action. We take too long to make a decision: we look for information, we spend a lot of time on it. We constantly look for threats, and this builds anxiety.
11) Anxiety is a chemical (cortisol). Your brain is designed to release cortisol when there’s a threat (or perceived threat).
Once cortisol levels surge, you can learn how to ask: “Is this a signal or is this noise?” If it’s a signal, you problem-solve, if it’s noise, you must learn how to ignore it. You can reverse the process by focusing on steps that build dopamine, which is what relieves cortisol. A brain full of cortisol generates a steady stream of disaster scenarios (catastrophizing).
Your survival is threatened as long as you’re alive. Anxiety exists to help you escape a threat. Cortisol communicates pain and the expectation of pain. It motivates you to do whatever it takes to make the bad feeling stop.
12) If people in our social circle or family feel threatened, we feel threatened too.
If you are isolated and lack social support, you have a less social bond, which helps you release happy chemicals in your brain.
13) Our brain prioritizes bad feelings because our brain evolved in a dangerous world.
It’s not possible to have a permanent solution to every problem. Disappointments make cortisol go up. Our brain evolved to promote survival, not to make you feel good. Bad feelings exist for a reason.
14) Intelligence has nothing to do with anxiety
When thinking about anxiety, it is not the fact that you worry a lot, we need to question if you worry about the right things. Your mammal brain makes all the choices for you. Your rational brain is there to help you define your alternatives. Your intelligence has nothing to do with this process.
15) Relaxation and breathing techniques are crutches to addressing anxiety.
Relaxation works well with a panic attack but with anxiety, it is insufficient. You can rewire your brain to reduce your anxiety in therapy. You can build a new response to anxiety in as little as 45 days. This time frame is possible based on research that supports how long it takes for your brain to create new habits.
16) Skills over Pills!
The most sought-after treatment for anxiety is medication. Medication is a good medical model most used to address panic attacks. It is possible to treat anxiety without medication. There’s no magic pill, you build your own unique trail. See more details here.
If you got curious about any of these 16 biological facts about anxiety, and wonder if therapy can help you curb your anxiety, contact me and I will be happy to discuss them with you. If you want more self-help on this, you can find a wonderful resource here.
Some clients are turned off by medicating themselves. There’s an alternative if you want to train your brain to take a different pathway.