The anatomy of anxiety
Before I explain why you become “anxious”, I will, first of all, explain the anatomy of how your stress system works.
The amygdala is our primitive mind and it goes back as far as we go back and it has the intelligence of a five or six-year-old child (let’s say for convenience).
One of its primary goals is to protect you from danger. Whenever there is a perceived threat it will fire the fight or flight response, you either flight or you flee (you may also freeze).
We have two minds, the logical mind and the emotional mind. In the diagram above this is represented as the prefrontal cortex (logical mind) and the emotional mind (the orange circle). Information flows between the logical brain and the emotional brain and the amygdala is the coordinator of the flow of information between the two.
If there is a threat the amygdala will fire the flight or fight response. You know the physical symptoms!!! Your heart will race, breathing will become fast and shallow, your tummy may feel in knots, you begin to sweat, etc, This is preparing you to do a runner but you don’t see any threat from which to run.
The problem is that in many instances there is no logical reason why the physical symptoms are triggered. In other words, there is no context. If you are running quickly and you experience the above physical symptoms, there is a context – this is what should be happening.
However, if you are sitting in a room full of people and all of a sudden those symptoms happen, there is no context, so the primitive mind takes over – you lose rational mindfulness. You now are thinking as a 5 or 6-year-old child. Your thoughts are now totally irrational.
Furthermore, you now become scared of the physical symptoms of the adrenalin rush in your body – your thinking is now starting to scare the primitive mind even more and you release more adrenalin, and so this body-mind loop continues to the state of having a full-blown panic attack.