• Allison Cooper

Changing Your Relationship with Anxiety Part 1: Understanding Your Brain and Anxiety

The first thing I do when I meet with a client with anxiety is teach them ways they can improve their relationship with anxiety. Most clients with anxiety respond to it with either avoidance or attempts to make it go away quickly. Both of these responses can actually worsen and perpetuate anxiety. The more you understand how anxiety is created, the better you can become at responding to anxiety and anxious thoughts.


Most clients think that the ultimate goal is to eliminate anxiety…. it isn’t! The ultimate goal is to tolerate and manage anxiety while doing the things you want to be able to do. It’s important to remember that anxiety isn’t always a negative thing. It can prompt us to action when needed, let us know when we are bothered by something, or help us get to safety. Anxiety becomes problematic when it limits us from doing things that we need or want to do and takes joy from our every day lives.


Most clients think that the ultimate goal is to eliminate anxiety…. it isn’t! The ultimate goal is to tolerate and manage anxiety while doing the things you want to be able to do.

I find it helpful to have a basic understanding of how anxiety is created within our bodies and the role our brain plays in the process. To understand this, you need to know the role of the amygdala. We talk about the amygdala in the singular, but we actually have two, one on each side of our brain.


On a daily basis, the amygdala is vigilant and “looks” for potential danger. While the goal of protection is vital, because the amygdala is not connected to our ability to think and reason, it can overreact or detect an immediate threat to our wellbeing when there actually isn’t one. This creates the physical and emotional experience of fear. There are two pathways that lead to anxiety, both of which include the amygdala.


Amygdala-based anxiety comes on suddenly and is experienced primarily physically. This is often described by a sudden onset of physical symptoms seemingly out of the blue without obvious anxious thoughts or stressors. It is best to respond to this type of anxiety with simple deep breathing exercises, relaxed posture, exercise, etc. In essence, we are working to communicate to the amygdala that all is well.


The second pathway is cortex-based and is instigated by worry and catastrophic (worst case scenario) thinking. Some examples of cortex-based anxiety are pessimism, catastrophizing, obsessing, worry and perfectionism. It is here that we have the opportunity to change our thoughts, rewire our brain and create new pathways.


My hope is that as you begin to understand this, you may find a sense of empowerment to respond in a more neutral and calm way to the emotional and physical sensations of anxiety It can be helpful to remember that the experience of fear doesn’t always equal danger.


Stay tuned for part 2 when we take a look at ineffective ways of responding to anxiety.

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