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Manage anxiety using understanding and conscious intention

Did you know people actually have two brains? We have a conscious brain that produces thoughts, ideas and intention and we have an automatic, unconscious brain that produces impulses. There are advantages to having two brains. The conscious thinking brain makes us smart and deliberate but the problem is it is slow. On the other hand, the unconscious automatic brain is fast, but the impulses that arise from it are sometimes undesirable. Automatic impulses do not always serve us well.

Have you ever been walking in the woods and seen something that looked like a snake out of the corner of your eye? Notice that your heart pounds and you have that alarmed feeling even before you are aware of having “seen” something. If you had to wait to fully process the image of the snake in order to react defensively, you would likely get bitten. So the mind makes you jump at a few snake-shaped sticks because that way you will be sure to avoid stepping on the real snakes.

The part of the brain that automatically senses threats is the amygdala. The amygdala receives sensory information from every sense. It “filters” this information and automatically “decides” which perceptions represent something that is a threat to safety. Notice that the amygdala is a dynamic or changing structure. If you are relaxed and happy you are less jumpy than if you are “on edge” because you just got into an argument or drank a cup of coffee.

The job of the amygdala is to take its crude sensory perceptions and to energize you to take action to protect yourself. It energizes you because it directly controls your sympathetic nervous system and stimulates the release of stress hormones. Did you know that stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are actually stimulants? The action of adrenalin is similar to that of cocaine. By the way, just like stimulants can be addicting, stress which releases these stimulants can also be “addicting” for some people.

The amygdala is not just a single brain structure. It actually has many parts to it. There are different classes of things we associate with threat and fear. The main two classes of feared situations are social and non-social. There are some very outgoing people who climb mountains and yet are anxious at social gatherings. Similarly there are some socially outgoing people who are easily frightened by heights or other non-social stimuli.

People get their fears two ways. The basic activity level of the amygdala is set by genetics. That is why anxiety disorders run in families. Studies show that timid people suffer from an over active amygdala. Fearfulness can also be acquired because like I said the amygdala is a dynamic structure. PTSD is a disorder where there is an enhanced threat response.

Now here is the important part that you may not have considered. What motivational systems does your amygdala interface most with? What are you likely to do in response to threat? There are people whose amygdala is over-connected to dominance motivation. When they perceive a threat they go on the attack. There are other people whose amygdala is connected to affection motivation so when they perceive a threat, they seek out social support. For others, the anxiety is free floating and they freeze up.

If you want to observe firsthand the amygdala at work, watch the dog behavior shows on Animal Planet. As you may have read, my daughter fosters dogs and so I have had the privilege of seeing threat behaviors and how they create dog dysfunction. The dogs also help us to understand how genetics and experience interact to shape threat responses. First let’s consider the grey hound. These dogs are very fearful but in general their fear system connects with their social affiliation system. As a result, they are on average low in aggression. Both of the grey hounds we fostered ran away from our dachshund. I think these dogs have been specifically bred for non-aggression and that is why they tend to cower when afraid.

This week, we had the good luck to meet the Dog Whisperer of Connecticut he explained to me why some working dogs bite people. The answer as to why some working dogs are vicious has relevance to anxiety in humans so stick with me. My new friend raises dogs who protect us by sniffing out bombs and narcotics in the airports. He showed us some terrific dogs and demonstrated their strong temperaments that make them ideal to do their jobs. The dogs with ideal temperaments have a very strong “play” drive and they like to have fun. But they also have to be sensitive to threat so that they will alert to danger. When they sense danger, they have to be energized to face it playfully. My new friend explained to me that vicious dogs are a by-product of the desire to breed dogs that have both play drive and an adequate threat response. If a dog is easily threatened but doesn’t play it only cowers if it is like a grey hound or aggresses if it is a working dog. So what our instincts tell us to do with our fear is important.

Like people dogs also have two brains, so they can be trained some. However the unconscious brain of a dog is always stronger. If a dog has an overactive amygdala and reactive aggression it will always be potentially dangerous. To help these dogs, we need to keep them in a calm environment or give them medication.

Fortunately people can, through conscious experience modify their genetics. People who are born with social anxiety can use psychological training to reduce and even eliminate their automatic responses. In people the amygdala is dynamic.

To manage anxiety we must first identify and understand it with our conscious minds. Then we must take conscious steps to face our fears while relaxing our bodies. Repeatedly facing a feared situation causes the amygdala to stop reacting to that situation as threatening. Avoiding a feared situation only reinforces the fear. The amygdala is rewarded by avoidance behavior and senses that it did it did a good job when we avoid.

Now stop a moment to consider how anxiety operates in you personally. Are you like a vicious dog who snaps at everyone when you get wound up? Are you like a grey hound who tries to cope by cozying up to a friend? Or do you just avoid everything and everyone? My friend who is a Buddhist says, “A human life represents a great opportunity because only humans have such a great capacity for choice.” Although the pull of anxious impulses is very strong we humans luckily do not have to be ruled by them. We can use our large intentional brains to make choices. The choices we make will then shape the structure of our unconscious minds.

Next week psychopathic anxiety.



80 Comments on "Manage anxiety using understanding and conscious intention"

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  1. Beverly says:

    AloaT, Bit of a sneaky thought, but I think you would guess me and OxDrover as being the two oldest women in the group!! Right?!



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  2. Beverly says:

    Rperk. Sometimes it is good to have a wallow!! Sometimes, we have to step backwards a little, in order to step forward alot. Anniversary dates are like mini signposts, but they do get thinner. I like words, they reveal who we really are. Our feelings are our language of the soul and need to be heard. Anxiety reminds us, that we are out of sorts, out of balance. Take care



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  3. OxDrover says:

    Oh,, but Beverly,

    I LOOK SO YOUNG AND LOVELY YOU’D THINK I WAS 30! (LOL RONTFLMAO) NO ONE would recognize me! ha ha Yea, right!!!

    Rperk,

    I think most if not all of us know the “I can’t talk about it to my friends” bit—they just get so tired of hearing it and I can’t say I blame them…years ago I had a friend who kept finding abusive men and when they would beat her up she would bail them out of jail–over and over and over…and I finally told her once when she had put him back in jail and was coming over for the “Umpeenth time” to moan about how bad he was to her I told her I would NOT EVER TALK ABOUT HIM AGAIN–she bailed him out the next day and I haven’t seen her since. I wish I knew then what I know now. I thought I was being “good” trying to set boundaries—and really I didn’t want to talk about how he had beaten her again when she had bailed him out–repeat and repeat and repeat.

    I think that is why a lot of people don’t understand why we “volunteer” to be victims—I never did that with a man, at least not for long and he never hit me, but I did it with my SON–so what’s the difference? I was just as much a volunteer victim as my friend was. I hope and pray she got out of the rut and got rid of that bad man and didn’t pick up another one. So many people NEVER get out of the RUT, the FOG etc. At least we have come that far, we are OUT of the relationship physically at least.



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  4. rperk6069 says:

    Thanx gals.
    Oprah says that your 50’s and 60’s are the new 40, guess that makes all of us about the same age. Older & hopefully wiser.



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  5. Beverly says:

    OxDrover, I had to laugh!!! I may look a tad over 30 but I’m no short arse!! Ha. Ha.



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  6. OxDrover says:

    Free, it is funny to me about “looks”—my late husband was “buff” when he was young, but NEVER GOOD LOOKING per se. (He had a huge nose) but you know, he was soooooo popular with women, from 6 to 96, every woman he met loved him, BECAUSE HE MADE THEM FEEL BEAUTIFUL. Because of that, HE SEEMED HANDSOME–if that makes any sense at all.

    His former secretary was a HOMELY woman if you saw her photo, but she, like him, was soooooooo charming that when she walked into a room, every man there thought she was the MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN THERE—she was AMAZING. Even I perceived her as “beautiful” and when I see a photograph of her it strikes me as “not her” because she looks so plain and unattractive—it isn’t that she just isn’t “photogenic” it is really all about her personality. Her charm overcomes ALL ELSE about her.

    When I get to looking in the mirror and seeing an “old woman” there with wrinkles, age spots, etc. I stop myself and I remind myself about how other people perceived my H’s secretary. She is BEAUTIFUL because she is LOVELY INSIDE. My husband was HANDSOME because he was handsome INSIDE. I may no longer be “drop dead gorgeous” outside, but I am MUCH MORE LOVELY INSIDE THAN I EVER WAS. What the exterior package is does not matter in the great scheme of things. All external beauty fades with time. If I base my “self-ness” on my looks attracting friends and lovers what does that say about ME?

    Our media tells us that “young is beautiful” and “old is ugly” and males ARE psychologically and biologically programed to be attracted to “fertility” in women (young, healthy) but if the ONLY thing going for a relationship is the “animal attraction” to spread genes, there isn’t much in the relationship. I may never again have a “soul mate” like I did with my husband, but I’m starting to be my own SOUL MATE, and am no longer so empty without him to validate my worth, validate my being. I can look back at our relationship and enjoy the memories, but don’t feel empty without it. I’m glad we had it, but I am still ME even with him gone. When I hooked up with the P XBF, I thought I needed someone else to validate me, my worth, my sexiness even in old age, my worth–but I find now, that NO ONE CAN TRULY VALIDATE ME. I must validate myself for it to be UNLOSEABLE. If our value is determined by other’s opinions, etc. it can always be LOST, but if it comes from inside, it can never be taken away by whatever losses we suffer. Personal or material.

    Dr. Frankl spoke in his book, “Man’s search for meaning” about the fact that the prisoners in the Nazi camps had lost EVERYTHING except their bodies, and even those were being beset with pain, starvation and torture. It was ONLY by hanging on to HIMSELF, the inside self, that he survived physically, spiritually and emotionally. The loss of everything and everyone he loved didn’t “kill” him inside. THAT IS THE STRENGTH I STRIVE FOR.



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  7. Beverly says:

    Please excuse my weird humour!! But so many people are still heavily attracted by looks. I just met a guy recently, who is not particularly attractive, doesnt have a huge ego, and doesnt have 12 mobile phones!! However, he is such a gentle, nice guy who appears to be very genuine, but I would not feel any chemistry for him as he is quite passive. But I know that if I ever got involved with someone again, it would be someone like him. I think we would all like to be involved with people who love us for what we are, on the inside. Perhaps that is the good thing about friends.



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  8. OxDrover says:

    Yes, I realize that we are all to some extent attracted by “looks” but at the same time I think “chemistry” is more than meer “looks.” It is personality and other things that makes someone attractive to me. My husband was “handsome” to me because I loved him.

    I have several close male friends that I adore AS FRIENDS but it isn’t their looks that doesn’t “click” on the chemistry, I’m not sure exactly what it is that makes that “attraction”—oh, some things I can put my finger on, but much of it I can’t.

    My P XBF was “average” looks but had a really warm smile and there was so much about our life styles, mutual friends, mutual interests etc. that made it all click some how at least for me.

    When you are a “kid” you have a larger selection of people your age to choose from than we do today when most people are either married or rejects, so just the sheer numbers of women who are “single” vs the smaller number of available men our age (and many of those do choose from the younger women who are available, partly I am sure, based on looks) so the “pickings are slim” but at the same time, I am now CONTENT with myself, by myself, so if I never get the chance for another romance, I am OK. I’m no longer “needy” and “panic’d” like I was about being “alone.” One is a whole number, not just half of two. Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like it, it just means I no longer REQUIRE it to be “whole.”



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