The Amygdala Answer: How understanding the origin of your anxiety will lead to the best solution
We usually assume all anxiety has a similar biological process, but anxiety can come from two different places in the brain.
If anxiety is caused by our thoughts, it originates in the cortex. For example, if you are preparing for a big presentation and you start to think about all the things that could go wrong, you will likely begin to feel anxious about it. Those thoughts come from the cortex, which activates the amygdala, and then the amygdala responds by releasing an anxious response in the body.
However, when anxious feelings come on suddenly before we are cognitively aware of the cause, that anxiety originates in the amygdala (without the cortex being involved). This type of response is the body’s way of protecting itself from perceived danger when there is no time to wait for our thoughts to recognize there is a problem. For example, if you heard a car horn just before being in a car accident, your amygdala might have learned to associate the sound of a horn with danger. If this happens, the amygdala will initiate an immediate anxiety response every time it hears a car horn. Only after the body has responded in this way will your thoughts catch up to apply reason and determine if the horn is a sign of danger or not. The amygdala has activated a response aimed at protecting the body, without you having cognitive awareness until after it happens.
Responding to Amygdala Anxiety
Knowing what area of the brain is causing our anxiety is the key to understanding how to best address it. If our anxiety is coming directly from the amygdala, then the cortex (and conscious thought), are not involved. So, it would not be effective to try to use our thoughts to change this type of response. With amygdala-based anxiety, the best thing we can do is work on exposure. Finding ways to expose ourselves to the trigger that causes this type of anxiety will over time teach our bodies that the situation is safe. The amygdala learns from experience, so the more we experience a perceived threat without a negative outcome, the less likely it will continue to cause an anxiety response.
Responding to Cortex Anxiety
With cortex-based anxiety, the most effective approaches address our thoughts directly. Cognitive restructuring refers to the process of identifying thoughts that cause anxiety and replacing them with helpful thoughts. Thanks to neuroplasticity, each time we do this we are creating new pathways in the brain that will help to prevent an anxious response in the future. Different problematic thought patterns contribute to anxiety, such as expecting the worst, jumping to conclusions, judging yourself unfairly, making ‘should’ statements, and perfectionism. Using these thought patterns as a guide, you can identify specific thoughts you have that lead to anxiety, and then develop coping thoughts to replace the unhelpful thoughts. For example, if you frequently think ‘I need to do this without making any mistakes’ (perfectionism) it might lead to feeling anxiety about completing the task, and possibly prevent you from doing it. A more helpful coping thought to use in its place could be ‘I am learning, it is safe for me to make mistakes.’
Anxiety is a complex issue, and this is a very brief overview of how understanding where it originates in the brain can help inform the proper intervention. These processes would best be navigated with the help of a mental health professional trained in the treatment of anxiety.
–Laura Gross, LMSW
Laura Gross is a Clinical Therapist with Marsh Psychology Group
You can contact her at:
Pittman, Catherine M., and Elizabeth M. Karle. Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, & Worry. Echo Point Books & Media, 2019.