Have we ever wondered what’s happening inside our brain when we feel anxious, panicked, or worried? As it turns out, the amygdala and cortex – both important parts of the brain – are notorious sources of anxiety. One is in charge of our “fight or flight” response, while the other is a hub for worry, obsession, and rumination.
Anxiety is a human complex emotional response that is similar to fear. Both arise from similar brain processes and cause similar phisiological and behavioral reactions; both originate in portions of the brain designed to help all animals deal with danger. Fear and anxiety differ, however, in that fear is typically associate with a clear, present, and identifiable threat, whereas anxiety occurs in the absence of immediate peril. In other words, we feel fear when we actually are in trouble – like when a truck crosses the center line and heads towards us. We feel anxiety when we have a sense of dread or disconfort but are not, at the moment, in danger. Everyone experiences fear and anxiety. Events can cause us to feel in danger, such as when a severe storm shakes our house or when we see a strange dog bounding toward us. Anxiety arises when we worry about the safety of a loved one who is far from home, when we hear a strange noise late at night, or when we contemplate everything we need to complete before an upcoming deadline at work or school. Many people feel anxious quite often, especially when under some kind of stress. Problems begin, however, when anxiety interferes with important aspects of our lives. Anxiety can limit people’s lives in many ways – many of which may not seem to be due to anxiety. For some people, fear of flying severely limits their career.
At its best, anxiety can help us stay alert and focused. It can get our hearts pounding and give us the extra adrenaline we need to, say, win a race. At its worst, however, it can wreak havoc with our lives and paralize us to the point of inaction. If you suffer from anxiety, especially an anxiety disorder, you know how disabling it can be. However, riding yourself of all anxiety isn’t a realistic goal; and it is not only impossible but unnecessary.
But we can get a handle on our anxiety and regain control. A variety of neuroimaging studies and neurophysiological experiments have shown that the amygdala can be strongly influenced by both exercise and sleep. Take it one day – or one minute – at a time. By keeping our focus on the present moment we will save our mental energy for the tasks in front of us. In moments of stress, it can be immensely helpful to zero in on just one minute at the time. Focus on the positive. If we can learn to focus our brain on positivr experiences and savor them, we will feel generally happier. Tune in to moments filled with joy and beauty when they come and hold on to these experiences. Cherish those we love. Ultimately, love is stronger than fear. Setbacks will come in life, but they are often simply a sign that we are testing the limits. How we focus our thoughts has a very powerful influence on our brain.