The Neuroscience of Anxiety
The word anxiety comes from the Latin angere meaning to choke or to squeeze. Strangely, that is exactly what can happen in our brains when we feel under threat or danger. When we are relaxed and calm, more blood will go to the prefrontal cortex. When our emotional response is disproportionate to the stimulus, this process is called an amygdala hijack. The amygdala is responsible for the detection and response to threats. Fear triggers the amygdala to send a distress signal to the hypothalamus. In fear or anger, the hypothalamus sends corticotropin-releasing hormone to the pituitary gland. The pituitary then sends adrenocorticotropic hormones to the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone. It functions to metabolize fat, protein, and carbohydrates to quickly put us in survival mode. The stress response allows for energy to be converted quickly. The hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands make up this axis (the HPA axis).
Just think when you are stressed, what is going on in your body. Your blood pressure goes up, heart rate increases, and glucose is dumped into your system. In fear, we get ready to fight or take flight. Through excessive fear and anxiety, we can also freeze.
If our default mode network (DMN) is not trained toward concentrating on the present and being consciously aware, then our minds might move toward ruminating over the past or on anxiety of the future. We might regret or feel fearful about what we have done in the past. We might gear up toward a fight or flight from some future activity. In our anxiety, we will choke ourselves off from peace. Children who are not taught by parents how to reframe and train their minds to return to a DMN of resilience may have much more difficulty throughout life when faced with stressful situations.
Even with the best teaching and nurturing from parents, traumatic situations can damage our systems of governing the stress response. Through intense or prolonged traumatization, the ability to recognize or recover from threats can decrease. We can even train our bodies to expect and be drawn toward trauma and increased anxiety. To watch traumatic news day after day can be traumatizing. Even more damaging is when traumatic news becomes sensationalized as if it is entertainment.
Intense anxiety over a long period can also damage the hippocampus. The hippocampus helps the nervous system become calm. Victims of trauma and abuse have been found to have shrunken hippocampi. Through chronic stress, the hippocampus might become so affected that we can become confused about our own memories of what is real or unreal.[i]
But villainizing fear and anxiety is not the best course. Our amygdala gives us the ability to survive. Unless we can label and recognize threats in the world, we would have no way to survive. Knowing and labeling our fears can also have tremendous value in our healing. Unless we understand and appreciate our most beloved treasures, as well as the weight of what it would be to lose them, we are not able to navigate the risks and opportunities of life.
Our scripture reminds us that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (1 John 4:18). The word used in Greek here is(φόβος), pronounced phobos, meaning dread or terror. It is where we get the word phobia. After we survive threats and attacks, we can remember fearful situations. We can hold in mind our fear, but not be overwhelmed by it. We can calmly contextualize our memories where we were fearful through our executive function rather than the body being overwhelmed in the fear response. In terror or extreme anxiety, we become overwhelmed by fear. There is no terror or sense of punishment in love. But to hold our past memories of fearful situations in mind while taking risks to walk in the Way of Love gives us even more appreciation for how precious love is.
[i] Richard O’Conner, Rewire: Change Your Brain to Break Bad Habits, Overcome Addictions, Conquer Self-Destructive Behavior, (New York: Plume, 2014), 27.