Anxiety and the Brain Part 2: Introducing the Cortex and the Amygdala

Trying to get your head around anxiety is really difficult; in some cases it can be a complete mystery to both those suffering, and to those seeing someone suffer.

As I have mentioned in previous articles anxiety does not always make sense, but after reading the next few articles on Anxiety and the Brain, things will hopefully become a bit clearer.

In these articles I will be referencing a brilliant book called ‘Rewire Your Anxious Brain’ which has been a life saver in helping me to get clarity on what goes on up there.

To start with, it is important to differentiate between Anxiety and Fear because it can be easy to confuse the two:

Fear –

noun: An unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm.

verb: Be afraid of (someone or something) as likely to be dangerous, painful, or harmful.

Anxiety –

A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.

Strong desire or concern to do something or for something to happen.

Looking at the definitions they seem very similar however, the main difference is that fear is associated with a clear and present danger, or a threat that you can clearly see and associate with the feeling.

With anxiety there is no immediate threat or danger; we can feel uneasy or have a feeling of dread but we are not in danger at that particular moment.  Anxiety is caused by our brain perceiving something as dangerous and how it interprets that danger.

Remember: The brain is always acting to try and keep us safe.

So, let’s look at the brain a bit closer; in particular the two parts of the brain where anxiety is created; these are the Cortex and the Amygdala.

The Brain

The Cortex:

This is described as the thinking part of the brain, the part that some believe makes us human.  It is the part that enables us to reason, create language and to engage in complex pathways of sensations such as thoughts, logic, imagination, intuition, conscious memory and planning.

The cortex is the part of the brain that fills the topmost part of the skull.

The Amygdala:

These are small, almond shaped parts of the brain with one located on each side of the brain.  It is the amygdala that triggers the Fight or Flight response that we are all too familiar with.

Despite being small, the amygdala are made up of thousands of circuits of cells which are dedicated to different purposes.

These circuits influence love, bonding, sexual behaviour, anger, aggression and fear.  Its role is to attach emotional significance to situations or objects and to form emotional memories; which can be positive or negative.

It is the amygdala that attaches anxiety to experiences and creates anxiety-producing memories.

Shock - Photo by Gem & Lauris RK on Unsplash

While the cortex can initiate or contribute to anxiety, the amygdala is required to trigger the anxiety response this is why it is important to understand both in order to get a full, clear picture of your anxiety.

In psychotherapy for anxiety, the focus is generally on the cortex and they use a therapeutic approach that involves changing thoughts.  It is also possible to argue logically with the Cortex Pathway because the source and reasons for the anxiety make sense.

A lot more therapies are now taking into account the role of the amygdala because this gives a more complete picture of the causes of anxiety.  This also helps to identify different ways of trying to control anxiety.

You can generally figure out whether your anxiety is cortex-based or amygdala-based.  Once you know this, you then have a better idea of what type of treatment will be most beneficial for you.

If your anxiety is cortex-based, you may find that you think more about certain images that cause your anxiety levels to rise.  You may also worry more, and spend more time focusing on these worries and find yourself desperately trying to think of a solution or solutions to certain problems.  Usually we can notice when cortex-based anxiety is becoming overwhelming and take action quicker to try and reduce it; we can also deal with it in a logical way because we know what it is we are worrying about, or what the problem is that we are desperately trying to solve.

Amygdala-based anxiety is very different because you usually won’t know what the cause of your anxiety is; you will just feel an increased level of anxiety.  You will also have more powerful physical reactions to the anxiety than you would if you were suffering with cortex-based anxiety; this is because the amygdala has connections to other parts of the body and uses these connections to cause the physical reactions such as panic attacks.

The reason this type of anxiety does not always make sense is because the amygdala does not produce thoughts that you are aware of.  It reacts much quicker than the cortex and generates a response without your conscious knowledge or control.

“In less than a tenth of a second, the amygdala can provide a surge of adrenaline, increase blood pressure and heart rate; create muscle tension and all the other uncomfortable anxious reactions”

The amygdala is extremely powerful and acts of its own accord.  It is constantly noticing sights and sounds and anything that is going on as you go about your day; the fun bit is that you are not even aware that this is happening because it notices things you have not consciously focused on.

Lookout - Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

It is on a constant vigil, looking out for anything that may be dangerous or a threat to you.  If the amygdala spots any sort of potential danger it will respond immediately.

While the amygdala is brilliant at keeping us safe, it is actually pretty outdated and not really as useful in the modern world as it could be.  You see, it is working of what it learnt in prehistoric times; this learning has been handed down through natural selection and through different generations.  It still thinks that the best responses to danger are Fight, Flight or Freeze, the threat of an attack by a sabre toothed tiger is very different to an angry boss shouting at you; unfortunately the amygdala wants to react to both in the same way.

shutterstock_105735191

I hope this has started to unravel the mysteries of anxiety and the physical reactions we experience when anxious?

In the next article in this series, we will look into each pathway in more detail.

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.

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