Anxiety and the Brain, Part 8: Learning from Experience.

“The amygdala is not logical.”

Trying to alleviate anxiety, panic, worry and avoidance of triggers with reasoned thought and rational arguments is never going to work.  Those close to you will always try to help by offering logical reasons for what is going on with you; unfortunately they have not experienced what you have, so what seems illogical to them is actually terrifying to you.  Who could be scared of a teddy bear, their so cute and fluffy!

In the same way that the amygdala has learnt to fear, EXPERIENCE is the only sure way to retrain it.

If you go for talking therapy or read self help books (or blogs…..) you may find that these don’t help your anxiety, and that is because they do not target the amygdala (that’s why my Anxiety and the Brain series is so important and why the Rewire your Anxious Brain book is a must read.)

In order for the amygdala to change it’s responses to an object then it needs to learn a new, positive, experience to associate with it.  This is where ‘facing your fears’ comes from.

You can spend hours trying to reason with your amygdala, but it won’t work as effectively as just having a few minutes of direct experience with the trigger.

Man and dog - Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

If you have a fear of dogs then you need to be in a room with a dog; if you have a good experience then the amygdala will start to make new connections based on this experience.  The association of triggers and responses is called pairing; the amygdala must experience a change in these pairings for the circuitry to change.

Obviously this needs to be managed very carefully because just shutting yourself in a room with something that terrifies you will only make things worse, and the fear association will just become stronger.  You need to seek professional help with confronting any fear so that it can be done in a safe environment.

Avoidance doesn’t work because you are preventing the amygdala from creating new connections.  My biggest triggers are related to work, I had to update my CV as part of applying for Universal Credits, all I could add was the name of the last company I worked for and my job title; after this I froze and became anxious when I thought about what my role entailed.

The amygdala tends to preserve learned emotional reactions by avoiding any exposure to triggers, which decreases the likelihood of changing the emotional circuitry.

“Being the ultimate survivalist, the amygdala is purposely cautious, and its default setting is to organise responses that decrease your exposure to triggers.”

Next time we will look at how the cortex creates anxiety.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Referenced: Rewire Your Anxious Brain – how to use the neuroscience of fear to end anxiety, panic & worry.  By Catherine M. Pittman, PhD & Elizabeth M. Karle, MLIS

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