In this blog post, we’ll delve into the fascinating process of rewiring the anxious brain. This is day 3 of the course, How To Break The Anxiety Cycle in 30 Days.
Hey there! I’m Emma from Therapy in a Nutshell, today you’ll learn how you accidentally feed anxiety – I’m going to break down the amygdala’s role in determining whether something is safe or dangerous, and how you can leverage that to rewire your brain to be less anxious. And I’ve got some great stories to tell, including how I was nearly killed by a herbivore. This is Day 3 from my 30 Day Online Anxiety Course. Let’s dive in!
Rewiring The Anxious Brain for a Calmer You
Your brain is wired to adapt to circumstances, it can physically rewire itself based on how you think and the experiences you have. The human brain is one of the most complex and brilliant and amazingly powerful creations in the world. So why the heck does it make so many anxious thoughts, why can it make us miserable sometimes? There are some ways we accidentally teach our brain to be more anxious. Let me show you.
OK, your brain and body like to have an internal sense of safety, that’s their default mode. When we feel safe we can relax, our body can rest, digest, heal, connect, feed and breed.
Closing The Loop
Let’s say that you’re happily walking down a trail listening to music, when all the sudden a huge person jumps out at you from behind a bush. Aaah! You jump backwards! You yell, your body surges with adrenaline. When we perceive a threat, our body triggers the fear response. But then you realize it was just your friend pranking you. You realize that you are actually safe. And your body has thes built-in way to restore that sense of safety in your body. You laugh it off, this actually burns off that adrenaline. You talk about it “Did you see your face, haha!” You both tell the story to your friends. Your heart rate and breathing return to normal, and your internal sense of safety is restored.
How the feedback loop works- Amygdala and learning
What happened here? Your brain quickly processes that sensory information and sends it to the amygdala, which is like your brain’s fire alarm.
When the amygdala perceives a threat, it sounds the alarm, triggers a fear or anxiety response. It’s like your brain saying, “Hey! There might be a bear!” This response activates your body’s fight-or-flight system, getting you ready to either face the threat or escape from it. You jumped backwards (flight) and yelled (fight), both are adaptive ways to deal with a real threat.
Then when you saw that it was just your friend, your amygdala re-assessed the situation and realized – “Ok phew! I am safe, we can turn off battle mode”. The parasympathetic response kicks in, you laugh it off, shake it off, and tell the story. Your sense of safety is restored. Your brain and body have a natural, hardwired ability to resolve fear and stress.
The Avoidance-Anxiety Cycle
Now, let me tell you how this system can get hijacked and we end up feeding a constant state of anxiety.
I once was working with a group of teenagers, we went camping and hiking in the Tetons. One of these girls, who we’ll call Megan, was terrified of bears. Even in our large group camp, surrounded by hundreds of other campers, she was constantly terrified. She was afraid to sleep in a tent, so she slept sitting up in a car, she was afraid to go to the bathroom, so she didn’t drink much water so she didn’t need to pee. She was constantly thinking about bears and clinging to a gaggle of girls and worrying about bears. Every time she heard a rustle in the bushes near our camp, she would freak out, she’d cry and run away from the sound.
So what was happening? Stimulus (a rustle in the bushes), Perception (This is dangerous!) the amygdala would fire off a quick alert, the body would go into FFF, and Megan did everything she could to flee – she’d run away, she’d cry for help, she’d cling to others. And when she was running away and clinging to others, she felt a little sense of relief, it felt better. These are all avoidance behaviors. And guess what, she survived, nothing physically bad happened to her.
But here’s the really important thing to understand, your brain is plastic, it physically and chemically changes based on how you think and how you act. When she avoided the rustling sound, her brain essentially learned “Phew, I could have died! I have to avoid rustling sounds to keep my human alive, so I’m going to make my human MORE anxious.” Your brain isn’t designed to make you happy, it’s designed to keep you alive.
This is how we accidentally make ourselves more anxious, avoidance trains your brain to increase anxiety. It keeps you stuck in the loop, where instead of addressing a danger -which allows your amygdala to reassess and restore a sense of safety, avoidance keeps you frozen in a state of ongoing anxiety. Your confidence decreases and your anxiety increases.
Now, whenever you hear a rustling sound, your brain associates it with bears, your amygdala activates the fear response.
Now let me tell you the rest of the story.
We took that group of girls on a hike, a beautiful hike through the tetons to amphitheater lake. It was gorgeous. Megan did not want to go, she was scared that there might be bears there. But when she realized that if she didn’t come, she’d be alone at camp, she decided to come. She faced her fears. We were hiking in a large group along a popular trail. We took reasonable precautions, brought food, water, bear spray and we knew to stay clear of any wildlife. Some of the other hikers on the trail told us that bears have been spotted in the area. But this isn’t uncommon in the Tetons and it was deemed safe to continue. Because of my decades of experience in the wilderness, we knew how to stay safe and choose acceptable risk. So we hiked our hike, on the way up we even saw one of the bears from a distance of a couple hundred meters. It ignored us. We kept hiking. The lake was beautiful. The sky was clear. We hiked back to camp, singing and laughing, even Megan. The girls had an incredible experience, for many of them, once in a lifetime.
And, for the rest of our trip, Megan didn’t feel scared about every rustle in the bushes any more. She would go look at the rustles and see a small bird or a squirrel in there. She told the story of the bear on the hike over and over and was more relaxed and enjoyed herself the rest of the camp. You can see how her sense of safety was strengthened by facing her fears.
The Role of the Amygdala in Learning
So what happened here? When Megan faced her fears, and survived, her brain learned to recategorize rustles as most likely being safe, and she even learned to downgrade bears from an “Extreme danger” to a “manageable threat”. Her amygdala stopped firing off the fear response, and she felt less anxious.
When you face your fears, your anxiety decreases and your confidence increases. Your sense of safety is restored.
If you consistently avoid any situation where you might encounter a rustling sound, your brain never gets the chance to learn that not every rustling sound means there’s a bear. Avoidance makes your brain increase your anxiety levels. So what can we do instead?
Let’s explore the other option– the approach response. Let’s suppose you’re afraid of public speaking, and you’ve been avoiding it for a long time. You make excuses, you call in sick, you make other team members do the presentations. And you’ve declined any promotions that involve more presentations. And the longer you go without presenting, the more you avoid it, the more anxious you feel when you think about any form of public speaking. And, by the way, even worrying and rumination are types of avoidance (more on that later). But now, a great new job has come up, a job that requires public speaking. You decide it’s time to face your fear. You tell yourself that your anxiety is just a sign that you care about doing a good job, and you convert that energy into preparing for the presentation. You start practicing- carefully preparing presentations and sharing them with your spouse, your kids, your mom, you practice in front of them, and gradually start to feel more confident. You decide to lead a presentation for your small team at work- of course you feel nervous, but you do it anyway, and it goes well enough.
As you approach the situation, your amygdala starts to recognize that you’re not in immediate danger. Your brain begins to update its associations and learns that public speaking isn’t as dangerous as it originally thought. Eventually you give a presentation to the entire company.
With each successful experience of approaching the fear, your anxiety levels start to decrease. Your amygdala starts to realize that the situation isn’t as threatening as it once believed. Your sense of safety is restored. The more you approach public speaking and have positive experiences, the more your brain adjusts its fear associations, leading to decreased anxiety over time.
It’s important to note however, that initially, you’re going to feel quite a bit of fear or anxiety, you can’t wait for the anxiety to go away first before facing your fear- that leaves you helpless, because we can’t directly force feelings to change.. Instead, you need to allow the anxiety to be there, face your fear, and then afterwards your brain learns “Phew, that was safe, I can decrease my human’s anxiety in that area”. The intense emotions actually prime your brain to be more plastic, to rewire. The other really cool thing you learn is that you can handle feeling anxiety. You become confident that it’s safe for you to have feelings.
Essentially what’s happening here is that you are rewriting your brain, teaching your smoke alarm, your amygdala, to be more accurate, to know when it’s actually in danger and when it’s actually safe. A healthy person still has some fear responses, they are just much more accurate at knowing which ones to believe. You’re fine tuning your threat assessment system, while at the same time increasing your belief in your own abilities.
But Emma, what if you’re facing a real threat, a real danger? Or what if you’ve had trauma? Great question! What if that rustle in the bushes is actually a bear or what if you actually lose your job because you’re such a bad presenter?
Let me tell you about the time I nearly got killed. I had recently finished Graduate school. I was in the backyard of my parents’ house, and I was brain tanning a deer hide, it’s a process that takes about 8 hours. And I was working on this hide, when all the sudden the hairs on the back of my neck went up, I just had this sense that I was in danger. And I turn around and see a huge moose standing about 50 feet away from me. My dog, Geneva, starts running at the Moose, barking her head off. I yell “Geneva! No! Come” but she got there fast, and that moose didn’t move an inch, he just picked up his huge foot and tried to crush her with his hoof, she narrowly turned away and the moose left a 6 inch hole in the lawn where he nearly got my dog. Then Geneva turns and comes running to me, and the Moose is chasing her down, so we dive under the Sheep camp, a trailer and the moose is just pawing and pounding the ground. And me and my dog are just frozen, under that trailer. Hiding and hoping to not die. So yes, we ran, we avoided that real and immediate threat. Eventually the moose wandered off into a neighbor’s yard, we called animal control, the cops came, they cornered it in the other yard until they could get someone with a tranquilizer gun and a big trailer to haul it up the canyon. I tell the cops to just leave it alone and it’ll go there itself. They tell me that they can’t because they’re responsible for public safety. So I put the dog inside and went back to working my hide. About 20 minutes later the hair on the back of my neck goes up again, I look up and there, in the same place in my yard I see that huge moose staring at me. And I just say, “Hey moose, go that way, Run up the canyon you’ll be safe”, and it does. It turns away, and trots up the road toward the canyon, the cops follow behind with their lights literally blazing.
OK, so what happened? safety->Perceived threat-> Yes it was actually dangerous- > I actually ran away, froze and I survived. And now I’m telling this story to everyone I know, I’m talking and laughing about it. This is literally the body’s way to resolve that pent up FFF response and return to a sense of safety. We literally shake it off, our body physically shakes to burn off that adrenaline, we laugh and tell stories and our body returns to the parasympathetic state. So- what happened to my anxiety around mooses? It definitely went up. Our Amygdala learns from our experiences, including traumatic ones. When I’m in moosey areas, I am on high alert for moose and I’ll avoid them whenever I can. But my confidence also went up. I know that I can probably escape a moose the next time. I think my threat assessment system is pretty well attuned. We can handle real danger – by taking action to fight or flight, or even freeze briefly. We can handle real danger by choosing to actively avoid it. The key here is choice and action.
The thing that causes disordered anxiety is really when we 1. Feel like we’re in danger when we’re actually safe, or 2. When we avoid danger while being physically immobilized. When we’re stuck feeling frozen and anxious that loop stays open and we don’t return to safety.
So let’s say you have anxiety about an upcoming test, it’s important to your grade, it’s important to your future success, but it’s not physically dangerous. But instead of using that anxiety to motivate you to study, you want that anxiety to go away- so you distract yourself with tiktoks. That anxiety response is stored in your body, your body is immobilized, and you never feel that return to safety. Your anxiety just builds and builds, and your confidence decreases.
The key to breaking the anxiety cycle is choosing to reevaluate threats, and choosing action that increases confidence. Because confidence is what restores your internal sense of safety. You’ve got to face your fears.
The tricky thing is that we humans are super good at avoidance, we’re experts at using mental gymnastics to avoid our feelings, and this is the sneaky way that we actually make our brain more anxious. In the next video we’ll explore how avoidance makes you more anxious and the sneaky things you don’t even realize you’re doing that are keeping you anxious. Then in the video after that, you’ll learn the antidote.
In this course you’re going to learn how to relate to your anxiety, so that it’s not running the show, and you’ll stop doing the things that make your anxiety grow. You’ll learn to gradually and safely face your fears so that your confidence grows and your anxiety decreases.