Did you know people actually have two brains? We have a conscious brain that produces thoughts, ideas and intention and we have an automatic, unconscious brain that produces impulses. There are advantages to having two brains. The conscious thinking brain makes us smart and deliberate but the problem is it is slow. On the other hand, the unconscious automatic brain is fast, but the impulses that arise from it are sometimes undesirable. Automatic impulses do not always serve us well.
Have you ever been walking in the woods and seen something that looked like a snake out of the corner of your eye? Notice that your heart pounds and you have that alarmed feeling even before you are aware of having “seen” something. If you had to wait to fully process the image of the snake in order to react defensively, you would likely get bitten. So the mind makes you jump at a few snake-shaped sticks because that way you will be sure to avoid stepping on the real snakes.
The part of the brain that automatically senses threats is the amygdala. The amygdala receives sensory information from every sense. It “filters” this information and automatically “decides” which perceptions represent something that is a threat to safety. Notice that the amygdala is a dynamic or changing structure. If you are relaxed and happy you are less jumpy than if you are “on edge” because you just got into an argument or drank a cup of coffee.
The job of the amygdala is to take its crude sensory perceptions and to energize you to take action to protect yourself. It energizes you because it directly controls your sympathetic nervous system and stimulates the release of stress hormones. Did you know that stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are actually stimulants? The action of adrenalin is similar to that of cocaine. By the way, just like stimulants can be addicting, stress which releases these stimulants can also be “addicting” for some people.
The amygdala is not just a single brain structure. It actually has many parts to it. There are different classes of things we associate with threat and fear. The main two classes of feared situations are social and non-social. There are some very outgoing people who climb mountains and yet are anxious at social gatherings. Similarly there are some socially outgoing people who are easily frightened by heights or other non-social stimuli.
People get their fears two ways. The basic activity level of the amygdala is set by genetics. That is why anxiety disorders run in families. Studies show that timid people suffer from an over active amygdala. Fearfulness can also be acquired because like I said the amygdala is a dynamic structure. PTSD is a disorder where there is an enhanced threat response.
Now here is the important part that you may not have considered. What motivational systems does your amygdala interface most with? What are you likely to do in response to threat? There are people whose amygdala is over-connected to dominance motivation. When they perceive a threat they go on the attack. There are other people whose amygdala is connected to affection motivation so when they perceive a threat, they seek out social support. For others, the anxiety is free floating and they freeze up.
If you want to observe firsthand the amygdala at work, watch the dog behavior shows on Animal Planet. As you may have read, my daughter fosters dogs and so I have had the privilege of seeing threat behaviors and how they create dog dysfunction. The dogs also help us to understand how genetics and experience interact to shape threat responses. First let’s consider the grey hound. These dogs are very fearful but in general their fear system connects with their social affiliation system. As a result, they are on average low in aggression. Both of the grey hounds we fostered ran away from our dachshund. I think these dogs have been specifically bred for non-aggression and that is why they tend to cower when afraid.
This week, we had the good luck to meet the Dog Whisperer of Connecticut he explained to me why some working dogs bite people. The answer as to why some working dogs are vicious has relevance to anxiety in humans so stick with me. My new friend raises dogs who protect us by sniffing out bombs and narcotics in the airports. He showed us some terrific dogs and demonstrated their strong temperaments that make them ideal to do their jobs. The dogs with ideal temperaments have a very strong “play” drive and they like to have fun. But they also have to be sensitive to threat so that they will alert to danger. When they sense danger, they have to be energized to face it playfully. My new friend explained to me that vicious dogs are a by-product of the desire to breed dogs that have both play drive and an adequate threat response. If a dog is easily threatened but doesn’t play it only cowers if it is like a grey hound or aggresses if it is a working dog. So what our instincts tell us to do with our fear is important.
Like people dogs also have two brains, so they can be trained some. However the unconscious brain of a dog is always stronger. If a dog has an overactive amygdala and reactive aggression it will always be potentially dangerous. To help these dogs, we need to keep them in a calm environment or give them medication.
Fortunately people can, through conscious experience modify their genetics. People who are born with social anxiety can use psychological training to reduce and even eliminate their automatic responses. In people the amygdala is dynamic.
To manage anxiety we must first identify and understand it with our conscious minds. Then we must take conscious steps to face our fears while relaxing our bodies. Repeatedly facing a feared situation causes the amygdala to stop reacting to that situation as threatening. Avoiding a feared situation only reinforces the fear. The amygdala is rewarded by avoidance behavior and senses that it did it did a good job when we avoid.
Now stop a moment to consider how anxiety operates in you personally. Are you like a vicious dog who snaps at everyone when you get wound up? Are you like a grey hound who tries to cope by cozying up to a friend? Or do you just avoid everything and everyone? My friend who is a Buddhist says, “A human life represents a great opportunity because only humans have such a great capacity for choice.” Although the pull of anxious impulses is very strong we humans luckily do not have to be ruled by them. We can use our large intentional brains to make choices. The choices we make will then shape the structure of our unconscious minds.
Next week psychopathic anxiety.