Today we kick off 26 straight days of posts about anxiety and all the ways the anxious brain has of interrupting your perfect state of zen. This first post will give some basic information so that you know that I am talking about ANXIETY, not about the rational kinds of everyday concerns that occasionally cause a sleepless night. Everyone worries sometimes.
Anxiety is different in that it interferes with the daily pursuit of happiness almost all the time and over a long period of time. It is different than having rational worries. You might, for instance, get worried about running out of money toward the end of the pay period. That worry may be completely reality based since you don’t bring in a big income and your expenses exceed your income regularly. You may worry and create a plan to deal with it, and then, when you get paid, the worry goes away. Over time, when you continue to survive each month, you may stop worrying about it because experience has taught you that you can handle it. Learning through experience is something that sets anxiety apart from worries.
With anxiety, the worry never stops and is not necessarily based in reality. Even if the rational mind knows that everything is fine, the anxious mind is on alert just in case the world ends. Anxiety causes internal distress, even when there is no evidence to create concern. It causes physical symptoms such as a rapid pulse, shallow breathing, upset stomach, light headedness, clammy skin, and, for some people, severe panic symptoms that can feel as though death is imminent. People with anxiety are often very creative and imaginative. The problem is that their imagination easily gets out of hand and then goes to a dark, dark place. Anxiety is really like living with a bitch in your head. A bitch who rarely shuts up and is always looking at the dark side of life.
Let’s illustrate how the anxious brain works by using a vastly simplified model involving two parts of the brain: the amygdala and the the frontal cortex. (If you want a little more brain-science-lite go to this interesting website.) These two areas of the brain are supposed to place nice together. When they are both doing their jobs, the system works. Danger is averted, life events are taken in stride. The amygdala says, “That coiled thing over there looks like a snake.” The frontal cortex says, “Thanks! I will check that out. Oh, it’s only a badly coiled line. No worries.” The amygdala says, “Thanks for checking.” Then the amygdala, satisfied, goes and drinks a margarita in celebration of a job well done.
Here’s another one: Let’s say you are the lone boat at anchor in a protected cove. The wind is a gentle breeze. The forecast is for a calm night. The boat is tugging ever so gently, riding with the low swells and you hear the water tickling the hull. Let’s assume you aren’t new to this. You’ve been a boater for many years and you anchor out all the time. You’ve made sure the anchor is well set, the snubber is attached, the anchor alarm is on. The halyards are secured, there is nothing loose on the deck. The dinghy is up in its davits and secured. The anchor light is on. You sit below and listen to the music of the water and the wind and feel that all is well, secure in the knowledge that not only will the anchor alarm sound if you begin to drag, but that if the boat movement is ‘wrong’, you will feel it. You are serene in the knowledge that your amygdala and your frontal cortex play well together.
But if you have anxiety, you are in for a rough night. In that case, you begin to perseverate on any number of things that could go wrong, may have been forgotten, or are likely to break. Maybe you check the anchor several times. You set and reset the anchor alarm. Maybe you check it 4 times. Perhaps you check it 6 times. Some anxious people have a ‘magic number’ of times they need to check things. You might feel like you need to sleep in the cockpit, just in case. If you have it really bad you get these increasingly dark narratives in your head. You imagine a seacock giving way suddenly. The bilge pump and the backup pump completely break down. The boat fills with water immediately and begins to sink like a stone. You just know that the boat is surrounded by man eating sharks and giant squid. They are out there. Waiting for you. Life is so short, you wail in your own head. Your own mortality stares you in the face with bloodshot, unseeing eyes. See what I mean? That tricky anxious brain. Now you are in a real state.
By way of understanding how this disorder feels, let’s pretend that you have two alternate personalities living in your head. No, I’m not talking about “multiple personality disorder” (which isn’t even called that anymore anyhow). I’m just talking about the different parts of ourselves that every normal human being has.
First, there is Fran “The Frontal” Cortex. She is a logical thinker, a problem solver, and likes to weigh options. She probably plays chess. Fran is a synthesizer of information, gathering facts from all over the place and then putting them to proper use. Her job is to see that everyone else stays in line and doesn’t get out of control. Fran could probably help Congress get along if we let her. When people talk about ‘letting cooler heads prevail’, they are talking about Fran.
Fran is like the responsible older sibling who learned to suffer quietly through the tantrums of the younger, more voluble child; the one that took all the parent’s time and attention; the one that spends all the parent’s money; the one that required the ‘special’ soundproof room with rubber walls. That one. That’s the one who causes all the trouble. I said that anxiety is a bitch. Well, her name is Amy. In the anxious brain, she is simply out of control.
Her full name is Amy G. Dala, otherwise known as Amygdala. In the anxious brain, Amy takes on the world like a house on fire. Literally. If she were playing ‘Family Feud’, Amy G. Dala would pounce on the buzzer before the question was even asked. If she were in school, she would answer questions before the teacher had finished talking. She talks over more measured and reasonable people and, in particular, she hijacks Fran ‘The Frontal’ Cortex’s place in the conversation.
Once Amy really gets going there is no way to shut her up as she is on the rampage and all the stress hormones are on her side. They gang up on Fran and bully her unmercifully. Amy talks over Fran and puts her hands over her ears screaming ‘I can’t hear you! I can’t hear you!’. Fran cannot get a word in edgewise, so she may as well leave the room and go drink a milkshake and read for awhile until Amy gets finished. That might be a long time. It might ruin your whole day.
Amy is a liar, too. She is a serial liar who makes up one story after another, each of them grounded in only a tiny possible grain of truth. Some are just pure dark fantasy. Defying logic like some narcissists on parade in the news just now, she refuses to listen to even the most gentle correction. In fact, logic can make her almost insane with rage as she can make no sense of it. She has a very long memory, and, like your twisted ex-girlfriend, she can bring up even the most tangential evidence that proves her point at a moment’s notice. Don’t try to argue with her when she is in a rage. It’s not going to work.
Unfortunately, every time Amy is allowed to rage she gains a little more power. And this is one key to the imbalance between Amy and Fran. Fran can learn by reading. She can learn by talking and listening and imagining and all the other ways of higher beings. Real data can help Fran make decisions and sometimes, when Amy isn’t too upset, that can calm Amy down. But when she is out of control, forget it.
Fran grows stronger through experience, but she has multiple ways of learning. Cool reason is her super power. For instance, Fran realizes that the chances of being eaten by a shark are much, much less than the chances of getting in a terrible car accident. She swims in the sea with awareness, but not worry.
Amy, not so much. Amy knows people HAVE been attacked by sharks. In Amy’s mind, sharks exist, people swimming in the sea have been attacked by them, therefore if she swims in the sea, she will get attacked. That is all. Not only that, but once she has learned something, it can become hard wired in her and she has trouble unlearning it. If something bad happened one time, she will never let you forget it. Because that thing COULD happen again. Maybe the voice of Fran’s reason says it probably won’t, but Amy doesn’t play the odds. Amy is not a gambler. Amy plays to live. Amy’s super power is survival.
The thing about Amy G. Dala is that she has a very important job and she just takes it overly-seriously and takes control of the whole group. In the anxious brain, Amy always seems to act like she is the boss, like she is in charge of everything. We all know people like that. They are control freaks and we usually do not like them much. Also she is extremely smart and hypervigilant. Amy’s job is to warn us of danger. She is meant to keep us safe; to be out on the lookout for situations or people who might cause harm to us and to signal this to Fran so she can check it out and make a decision about it. And this is where it can all go horribly wrong. The more power Amy G. Dala gets, the more out of balance the realationship between Fran and Amy is, the more Napoleanic Amy becomes. She becomes a tiny dictator out for blood.
When this happens, Amy begins to see every small problem as a crisis. If Amy were a fire fighter, she would act as though all the buildings were on fire when someone has only lighted a candle. If Amy were a medic, she would put people in body casts for broken fingernails, just in case. Yes, the problem with Amy is that she just gets to be the most irritating kind of drama queen: the kind who never shuts up, is convinced she is right, and makes mountains out of every molehill in the yard. For too-powerful Amy, every little problem is a nail and requires a big hammer.
In the following days I’ll reveal to you just how Amy can interfere with an otherwise great day, especially out on the water and when a person is making a huge life transition. I’ll share some professional tricks I have for calming her down. This was a pretty long post, so congratulations if you read all the way to here. See you tomorrow when we will discuss the letter B and what dastardly thing it stands for.