So, how did a bigger and better brain cause so much difficulty when it comes to fear and and anxiety? Imagine the following:
You are crossing the street. Suddenly, your body tingles, your heart rate increases, you freeze and, from the corner of your eye you detect something. This all happened in a fraction of a second. Your look to your right and see a car heading straight for you. Now your heart really pounds and you dash for the other side of the street. The car horn honks and the driver gives you an angry look. You stand there catching your breath (breathing more deeply) and after a few minutes you calm down.
You have just experienced a fear response. Evolution built this into our brains to help us survive. You knew the car was there even before you consciously saw it. Or more accurately, YOUR BRAIN knew the car was there. YOUR BRAIN initiated the actions that may have saved your life.
The brain has circuits that warn us about threats. At the center of this circuitry is a small part of the brain called the Amygdala. When the Amygdala senses a threat, it sends out messages to many parts of the brain. The messages cause chemicals, such as adrenalin, to be released into our brains and into our blood. This results in physical sensations and changes in our body. Our breathing becomes more shallow and our hearts beat faster. Our muscles prepare for action. Most importantly, we become MORE AWARE of what is around us.
This is what researchers call ‘emotional behavior’ and it is common to all animals that are similar to us, for example, other mammals like cats and dogs. We do not control this emotional behavior. We don’t create it, our brains do it for us. We can’t stop it from happening. Sometimes this happens and we are not even aware of it.
When this emotional reaction is strong enough, we become consciously aware of it. We then FEEL something. What we feel is somewhat different from person to person but it is usually not comfortable. It is not supposed to be. It is supposed to tell us to pay attention to something, like that car that is speeding toward us as we cross the street.
So far, so good.
Enter the frontal lobes. When evolution created our frontal lobes, especially the part called the Pre-Frontal Cortex, we acquired the ability to think about things that are not happening. That’s good because it allows us to anticipate possible future events.
The problem for humans is that we can imagine threats that aren’t there. We can imagine all kinds of bad things happening to us. When we do, we set off our brains threat management system. Our Amygdala can’t tell a real threat from an imagined threat.
When that happens, the same chemical and physical changes happen in our brain and body that happened when that car was coming at us. The problem is there is no real threat. So, there is nothing to stop the built-in threat response. We go on being afraid. Usually, at this point we call it ANXIETY.
ANXIETY is being afraid of something that is not happening. But our anxieties can feel so damned real.