Anxiety. What do you feel when you hear (or read!) that word? What do you feel when you’re anxious? Is it a racing heartbeat? A pit in your stomach? Nausea? We all find ourselves, at some point or another, grappling with feelings of unease and apprehension. In this blog post, we delve into the intricate world of anxiety, shedding light on its causes, manifestations, and ways to manage it. Join us as we navigate through the maze of anxiety, exploring its impact on our minds and bodies.
Anxiety Unveiled: Exploring the Spectrum
Anxiety is a prevalent mental phenomenon that can manifest in various ways. The chest tightening, the pit in the stomach, headaches, cold sweats, and racing heartbeats – these sensations are all too familiar to those who’ve experienced anxiety. These physical cues are just the tip of the iceberg.
Why do we experience anxiety? Anxiety exists on a spectrum, ranging from the healthy nervousness that accompanies stepping out of our comfort zones to the overwhelming, paralyzing fear that immobilizes us. Anxiety is a natural response to challenges, but when it starts infringing upon our daily lives, it’s time to take a closer look.
The Anxiety Landscape: Statistics and Insights
Anxiety isn’t an isolated struggle; it’s a widespread concern. According to statistics, anxiety disorders top the charts as the most common mental illnesses in the United States, affecting a staggering 40 million adults. The COVID-19 pandemic, an event that rattled the world, significantly impacted anxiety levels. In 2018/19, 19.8% reported high anxiety levels, a number that escalated to 24.2% in 2020/21.
Survival Mode: A Glimpse into Our Instinctual Response
Imagine a caveman evading a saber-toothed tiger, a child falling into a pool, or a pedestrian narrowly avoiding an oncoming car. These scenarios put the brain into survival mode, an innate response to imminent danger. It’s a state where our logical brain becomes eclipsed by our instinctive, survival reactions, driven solely by the need to stay safe in the present moment. Our brain and body collaborate to ensure survival, with no room for deliberation.
Intriguingly, survival mode can be triggered by non-life-threatening situations, giving rise to what we at In the Cortex refer to as “perceived threats.” An unanswered text, a missed work deadline, or a forgotten task can all induce survival mode. The challenge lies in stepping back and recognizing these reactions for what they are: a hyperactive fight-or-flight response to situations that lack true life-or-death significance.
Neuroplasticity and the Anxious Mind
Anxiety leaves its mark, creating robust neurological connections that shape our behavior. These connections, anchored by neuroplasticity, become our default reactions. Genetics, epigenetics, brain chemistry, neurotransmitters, personality traits, life events, and underdeveloped brain regions all contribute to the intricate web of anxiety.
The more our brain goes into that survival response, the stronger that connection gets. Soon enough, it becomes our go-to response for anything that happens in our lives! Our brain no longer knows what a true survival situation is, so it feels like it has to stay in survival mode all the time.
Unraveling the Subconscious: Programming for Anxiety
Our upbringing, attachment patterns, and learned responses cast a lasting shadow on our lives. Our childhood experiences often dictate how we perceive and react to the world around us. This subconscious programming, akin to a life script, can either empower or constrain us in the face of anxiety.
Epigenetics, the intricate interplay between genes and the environment, wields a profound influence on how we navigate stress and anxiety. While our genetic makeup provides a blueprint, epigenetic modifications can amplify or attenuate our responses. These modifications, driven by lifestyle choices, experiences, and environmental factors, orchestrate the expression of our genes. In the context of stress and anxiety, epigenetics can determine whether we’re predisposed to resilience or vulnerability. Our behaviors and exposures leave behind molecular imprints that impact neurotransmitter regulation, neural circuitry, and hormonal responses. By recognizing the power of epigenetics, we uncover the potential to shape our mental and emotional well-being by fostering favorable genetic expressions that equip us to better manage life’s challenges.
A Bottom-Up Approach to Managing Anxiety
Rather than top-down models, In the Cortex offers a bottom-up strategy for managing anxiety. Our parasympathetic nervous system, often dubbed the “rest and digest” mode, is designed to counterbalance the stress-inducing sympathetic nervous system. Embracing this approach involves cultivating automatic responses that align with our natural design, promoting emotional well-being.
The delicate balance between the restorative “rest and digest” mode and the reactive “fight or flight” mode within our nervous system is pivotal for our overall well-being. When our nervous system is perpetually locked in fight or flight, it triggers a cascade of stress hormones that can wreak havoc on our physical and mental health. Chronic stress not only impairs cognitive function and emotional regulation but also compromises immune responses and cardiovascular health. On the other hand, activating the rest and digest mode allows us to repair, rejuvenate, and maintain a sense of balance.
The Primitive Brain and Anxiety
Intriguingly, the origins of anxiety can be traced back to the primitive brain, specifically the pons. This region, which matures within the first five months of life, plays a pivotal role in regulating responses. From managing our “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction to overseeing automatic functions like breathing and digestion, the pons is a cornerstone of emotional regulation. Primitive reflexes also play a part.
Located in the brainstem, the pons serves as a crucial orchestrator of emotional regulation and the “fight or flight” response. This primitive structure plays a pivotal role in assessing threats and triggering appropriate reactions. By managing automatic functions like breathing, heart rate, and eye movement, the pons helps maintain equilibrium amidst life’s challenges. Its intricate web of connections underscores its significance for emotional well-being, acting as a lookout that balances our responses to stressors and nurtures our emotional stability.
Spotting Disorganization: A Closer Look at Brain Development
Anxiety often ties into brain organization and development. A disorganized brain can hinder our ability to manage anxiety effectively. This disorganization can stem from underdeveloped brain regions and our subconscious programming. Take our brain organization quiz to find out how organized your brain is!
Embrace a New Perspective on Anxiety
Anxiety, while challenging, is a natural part of the human experience. By understanding its origins and reorganizing our brain, we can transform our relationship with anxiety. Embracing a fresh perspective on anxiety entails recognizing the profound impact of regulating our central nervous system. By delving into the root of our challenges, we can unravel the complex web of triggers and responses that fuel our anxiety. This journey begins with cultivating awareness—a pivotal first step towards change. Amidst the struggles, it’s essential to remember that we hold the reins to our brains. Our brains possess the remarkable ability to adapt, rewire, and overcome. Acknowledging that we are not defined solely by our struggles empowers us to navigate challenges with resilience. With each step towards self-discovery, we shed light on the innate potential within us, breathing life into the truth that transformation is not only possible but entirely within our grasp.