Understanding the anxious brain Vol. 1
Now I’m not looking for absolution, forgiveness for the things I do, but before you come to any conclusions, try walking in my shoes. Depeche Mode, 1998.
I decided to write something (I think it will be several posts) about how an anxious brain works and can behave, inspired by the fact that understanding my own brain helped me a lot in the past to release guilt, and actually take advantage of my “new skills”. I also hope, that someone in my friends or family circle (or in the friends or family circle from someone else with an anxious brain) could at some point read this, and help them understand a bit, that people like me don’t behave the way they do because we want to. It’s more we don’t have a choice and sometimes we feel a lot of shame and guilt because we’re not fitting within the behavioral standards of society.
Very simplified, Anxiety can be seen as a series of events that are triggered in any person when facing something unknown, a threat, or any kind of trouble. It starts in a part of the brain called the Amygdala (it belongs to something called the parasympathetic), which in turn will unchain the production of several hormones (neurotransmitters) like cortisol and adrenaline. By doing this, our body becomes capable of responding to this threat we’re facing. This process is also referred to as the fight-flight-freeze mechanism. Here our pupils dilate, our heart pumps blood faster, our senses become more alert, and our muscles tense in the expectation of the next step.
Anxiety is in itself not a negative thing to have, it actually has made us survive over the years. To illustrate this, let’s take the example of a cavewoman (better said, a prehistoric woman) who we will call Eva. Imagine Eva going on her day to collect fruits and herbs to eat in the woods, she may have with herself a stick to help with the walk and maybe even to defend herself from animals. In this scene, Eva is bending under a bush, trying to collect some berries she just found; now she hears the rustle of branches nearby. In a matter of milliseconds, she needs to proceed to run away, take the stick to defend herself, or do nothing, because this is a potential threat that could be another person, an animal, or just the wind. This is how anxiety works.
Maybe in our modern era, we are not out there in the wild with a stick collecting berries (or maybe just during holidays), but we are faced with things, that can potentially be dangerous, all the time, and our brain responds to this even without us noticing it. Our brain regulates how strong the response is by assessing how dangerous the threat can be, and automatically go back to normal once the threat is gone.
For a person with an anxious brain, this kind of response happens all the time and very strongly regardless of how big the threat is. Basically, an anxious brain has trouble regulating how much of the stress response to have, and it can’t differentiate if one is facing a lion or just losing a sock at home.
An additional component, that people with high levels of anxiety have is the emotional one. An anxious brain will get triggered by basically unexpected things and will be difficult to go out of the anxiety spiraling, but for sure the ones that have a personal or emotional side will lead to a stronger response and the inability to go out of the spiraling. Let me give another example to illustrate this: if I hear a person yelling random things in the street, this would trigger my anxiety, and I would probably have a hard time keeping it at bay, but I’d certainly feel okay after a couple of hours. However, if during a conversation with someone I know, the other person suddenly yells at me for 2 seconds, I’d have an anxiety attack, I’d not be able to respond to this person because I’d feel blocked, I’d probably have my heart beating in my ears, I’d have trouble breathing, and even after I’d go away from this person, my brain will keep spiraling thinking why that happened, or why this person said this or that. Perhaps, even if I caused it, I’ll easily spend one full day trying to recover from this situation and it would block me from doing other things.
Maybe, this already sounds like anyone would feel anxious, nervous, or jumpy if facing this situation, which is true, the difference with an anxious person would be the strength of the body response and thus the duration of the anxiety attack. This means everyone can feel anxiety at any given time, but an anxiety disorder (or an anxious brain) is when this happens all the time (yes, ALL THE TIME). It’s very different to experience anxiety when a certain thing occurs than living with anxiety all the time.
A person can get diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), some form of Phobia, Anxiety as a trauma response, or as a side symptom from other conditions (i.e. being on the spectrum). In any case, it is important to consider that a person who has lived with an anxiety condition for a long time (meaning more than a couple of weeks or months) and has a sustained state of anxiety, has no control over their responses. The chemistry of the brain is different but also the changes in the brain reach a structural level. In simpler words, people with anxious brains have differences in the brain wiring that make them behave differently.
This is especially important to remark in order to remove the guilt and shaming that comes from it. I’ll give another example to understand this: imagine you are going to the cinema, as many other times in the past, to watch some comedy movie that you have expected for a long time, and you’re going with your close group of friends. Then, when you’re finally sitting in the movie theater, the advertisements start (these ones, that come always before the actual movie starts, where the candy shop or some other movie trailers are displayed), and out of nowhere you start to have difficulties to breathe, you’re all sweaty, get all dizzy and feel as if your brain suddenly is not in your head anymore. You start to feel fear of something, but you’re not even sure of why. So, all you want to do is go out of the place before you pass out, and the worse is that you don’t even understand why. This, my friends, is a super senior anxious brain.
Could you imagine the shame a person feels, because the candy advertisement put you into full anxiety attack mode? Could you imagine, that you need to explain to your friends what happened to you? And maybe even not stay at the cinema, probably some of your friends may also want to make sure you’re okay, so they will also leave the movies to be with you, then you will feel guilty that they couldn’t enjoy the movie due to your situation. Imagine even, they’d ask you what’s wrong, and you can’t explain it. Well, this kind of situation happens regularly in the life of an anxious person (I can say it has happened to me).
For people who haven’t experienced this level of anxiety, it can be difficult to understand not just why this thing happens, but also why the anxious person can’t just chill. As an anxious person, you may hear things like “just do some breathing and you will feel better”, or “try to keep the bad thoughts away”, or “it’s all in your head” … While the advice may have the best of intentions, unfortunately, none of this may work (maybe if the response wasn’t so strong it could work). When you are experiencing anxiety like this, even if you start to think logically and try to control your breathing, your brain is already on the roll, it’s already hooked on this and will not stop until the cycle is complete. The worst is, that after the attack has passed, the person will feel a “hangover”, the amount of energy that is drained during an anxiety attack is insane, and your body will stay prone to enter the cycle again (if you have ever vomited, it’s like the feeling you have afterward that you can vomit again and again non-stop).
All I wrote here, is just very general situations of how an anxious brain may react, there is so much more to it: distraught at work, memory complications, a lack of concentration, eternal overwhelming feelings, fatigue, difficulty with relationships, loneliness, the sadness
I can only conclude this post by asking for more kindness toward the people around you. We all have difficulties, but we don’t really know how bad someone can be. And if you know someone who lives with anxiety, be more patient, they are trying their best.