Yee, you can decrease anxiety.
Anxiety pops up in many ways. So we often don’t recognize it.
Here, we’ll group all these ways under one condition: psychologists call it “agydala hijack.” The amygdala is a small part of your brain. It is near your spine.
When you are in danger, the amygdala takes charge. It cuts off blood flow to the frontal cortex, where you do your reasoning.
Your amygdala might be in hijack if you feel:
- afraid of a barking dog
- fearful that people will discover you are not smart
- upset about a stranger’s actions
- easily startled
. . . or when you are not thinking clearly.
How It Works
If a vicious animal is chasing you, do not negotiate. Fight or run away. Let the amugdala take control. The will amygdala send energy to your legs to run faster. The amygdala is an amazing tool.
Th amygdala is also your enemy. In modern life, the amygdala is triggered too easily. Especially for some people. The amygdala is lousy at discerning if a danger is real or not.
Example: you receive an opportunity to give a speech. The speech can promote you. The speech can launch you into a more successful career. Good news: the opportunity makes you nervous: you can use that nervousness to perform better.
Bad news: the amygdala interprets the nervousness as danger. So you think the audience is a predator. You are then unable to analyze the situation. You decide to (1) argue, or (2) runaway, or (3) do nothing (we call this fight, flight, or freeze).
You need your amygdala. But it sabotages you. What can you do?
When my amygdala takes control, I follow three steps:
- realize what is happening (“My brain is tricking me, this is not real danger”)
- breathe slowly five times
- ask myself: “what is the worst that can happen (in this situation)?”
Don’t let brain wiring prevent your success. Relax.
Evolutionary biologists say that humans avoid negative situations (Haselton, & Buss, 2009; Nesse, 2005). We over-respond to risks of pain and danger.
This is because in past ages, we needed to avoid predators. Let’s say you want more berries to eat. Another valley has more berries. But it also might have vicious animals. So you stay in your valley.
People who stayed safe were survivors. Risk takers were eaten and left the gene pool. Their grandchildren are us, modern humans. We experience false alarms (Lima & Dill, 1990) in making decisions.
“Better to be safe than to be food.”
“Better to avoid failure instead of seeking success and fail.”
Maybe this is why humans do negative thinking. We remember negative events better than happy times. We commit negative bias error.
Anxiety can cloud our understanding. We don’t conciously think stupid things. But we react using our amygdalas to interpret. For example:
- “That driver is too aggressive, so he is a predator that will eat my family. I must show him I am also aggressive.”
- ”I disagree with that politician’s views, so I must dedicate my life to his overthrow.”
- “My neighbor lets her barking dog wake me up. She wants me to fall asleep at my job.”
- ”Everyone around here fails.”
Joseph Wolpe, a psychiatrist who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s, developed some therapies. He treated PTSD before it was calld PTSD.
His group of therapies is called Reciprocal Inhibition. He is most famous for systematic desensitization. A therapist exposes a person to the anxiety-causing thing. The exposure is so low that the person doesn’t feel anxious. The therapist then gives a stronger exposure, and when it doesn’t cause anxiety, the exposure becomes stronger and stronger. Eventually that thing no longer causes anxiety.
I give you five challenges:
1. Learn to recognize when you think crazy things.
2. Don’t avoid risk because of your biology.
3. Forgive others when they act a little crazy. They have amygdalas of their own.
4. Learn to calm your amygdala. Let the front part of your brain be the leader.
5. Seek innovative therapy if your anxiety is serious.
::: Be fierce. Be kind. Be knowledge-hungry. :::
Haselton, M. G., & Buss, D. M. (2009). Error management theory and the evolution of misbeliefs. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32(6), 522-523. doi:10.1017/S0140525X09991440
Nesse, R. M. (2005). Natural selection and the regulation of defenses: A signal detection analysis of the smoke detector principle. Evolution and Human Behavior, 26(1), 88-105. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2004.08.002
Wolpe, J. (1968) Psychotherapy by reciprocal inhibition, Conditional Reflex 3: 234. pp 234–240. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03000093