I find it helpful to have a basic understanding of the mechanics behind the anxiety we feel. Knowing how it works gives us the ability to influence what we can for the better. So, let’s walk through the neurophysiology of anxiety together.
There is a complicated explanation from neuroscience that looks like this…
But I prefer simple explanations, so we’re going to use this visual:
Facts aren’t opinions; facts are data. We bring data about the world outside of our bodies into our brain by way of our five senses. At this stage in the process the data is just information, and it doesn’t really have any meaning to us. Imagine I’m speaking mandarin to you. Now assuming you don’t speak Chinese, it’s going to sound like squirrel gibberish. It has meaning, but not to you. For you it’s just noise brought into your brain from your ears.
So it is with all the images, smells, tastes, sounds, and touch sensations you take in. It’s not until the next stage in the neurological journey that this data takes on meaning.
The story phase is the meaning making part of our brain’s process. Our brain applies all that we have learned from our past experiences in life to make its best guess at the meaning of the data.
- What does the data mean?
- Why did it happen?
- What where the intentions of the people involved?
- Does it create danger (physical or emotional, tangible or intangible) for me or those I care about?
Our life experience influences greatly our interpretations of the data we experience. That’s why 30 people can observe an incident and walk away with very different ideas about what happened and why.
For any given set of data there are an infinite number of stories that could be told. Your brain identifies the one that seems most likely to you, based on your experience, and runs with it.
Every moment of your life your senses are taking in a constant stream of data. No matter where you are or what you are doing, your ears are picking up all sorts of sounds, and all the skin on your body is feeling various levels of pressure and temperature. You are smelling, tasting, and if your eyes are open, you are seeing what’s in focus and peripheral images.
Ninety-nine (99%) of the data your brain analyzes, determines if it’s important or not, and discards or responds subconsciously to it. It does this through a very fast, but not so smart, process. Which is helpful. Imagine if you had to consciously think about every piece of data. All day, every day would be spent just sorting and labeling. If even for a few minutes you were aware of all the data coming in, you would be completely overwhelmed.
Your brain, by God’s incredible design, handles most of the information for you and only brings to your conscious awareness the things it thinks you need to focus on. This information gets relayed to your prefrontal cortex for your conscious consideration.
Most of the stories you tell to yourself,you are completely unaware of; your brain does it in the background while you are focused on other things.
While you don’t notice the story, you do tend to notice the feelings created by the stories. Particularly if those feelings are intense and negative.
Emotions are very mechanical. We don’t tend to think of feelings as being mechanical. At least I didn’t before studying the neuro-endocrinology of them. I always thought of them as these ethereal floaty things that seemed to come and go with no real rhyme, reason, or logic to them.
They’re not though. There’s no happy pollen in the air, that makes us happy when we breathe it in. Nor is there a sad lotion that absorbs through our skin making us sad. And, contrary to popular belief, my wife does not have a blow-gun with angry juice she shoots me in the neck with, making me upset.
In reality, feelings follow a very straightforward and logical path. They are the product of our glands and nerves. Glands (endocrine system) do not think or make decisions on their own. They just do what they are told. And who’s calling the shots? Well, you are. That is, the meaning making part of your brain is, when it tells a story.
Now you many not remember telling yourself to feel anxious when you saw the flashing red and blue lights behind your vehicle on your way to church. You did feel anxious though. Your subconscious, that part of your brain that’s filtering all the incoming data, made the call for you.
It said, very quickly, “Oh, this isn’t good. In fact it’s very very bad. Something terrible is about to happen.” So it picked up the phone and dialed the adrenal glands — those two bean-shaped blobs of tissue setting on either side of your spine by your kidneys. And the Story part of your brain said, “Adrenals, we got a situation, and it’s terrible. We’re going to need a #terrible dose of stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol, norepinephrine) in the blood, Stat!”
Micro-seconds later your heart and thoughts are racing. Hands are starting to sweat, knots are forming in the stomach, muscles are tensing in the neck, back, and jaw. You’re really feeling that anxiety now.
We tend to react out of our emotions. When something doesn’t feel good, i.e. we feel angry, sad, hurt, or afraid, we do things to try to feel better. We utilize coping mechanisms in an attempt to soothe ourself. Sometimes these coping mechanisms are helpful (we pray, we turn to a friend and process out loud, we journal, or go for a run, etc.). Sometimes they’re not (we protest by yelling, screaming, defensively arguing, shutting-down, stonewalling, biting our nails, binge eating or drinking, looking at porn, etc.).
It is incredibly helpful to develop healthy coping mechanisms for navigating negative emotional experiences. It sure beats beating your head against the wall or self-sabotaging with unhealthy ones. But, you can also level up and learn how to change the emotions all together. The two together can enable the self-control that makes you the master of your emotions.
What should we do about anxiety?
They key to mastering anxiety is twofold. First, you need to learn healthy coping mechanisms that help you manage your reactions to anxiety producing situations. Next, you learn how to trace your path to anxiety backwards to identify the story that’s driving the anxiety.
When you bring the unconscious story into conscious awareness it gives you the ability to change the story. Change the story, change the emotional response (i.e. turn off, or at least down, the anxiety response).
If you can both turn down the anxiety response and manage it better with healthy coping mechanisms, then you are in good shape my friend.