Once upon a time, through the complex process of evolution, human beings developed into highly functioning individuals and thriving operational societies. Thanks to their survival instinct, people learned to effectively scan the environment for threats to their safety. Our ancestors would constantly check their surroundings for dangers or problems to fix. Back then, it was a matter of life and death to detect a bear lurking in the shadows or to find a solution to ineffective food storage systems. Consequently, our brains developed a negativity bias, habitually seeking out negative stimuli. Such primitive responses have followed us to the present day and often do much harm.
The anxiety response has been millions of years in the making. Today, it is not the bear that threatens our survival brain, it’s standing traffic, family conflict, or looming deadlines. Our brain cannot comprehend that being late to an interview isn’t actually life-threatening. This false perception gives rise to the automatic fight or flight response that often includes dizziness, heart pounding, tension, jaw clenching, dry mouth, gastrointestinal issues, tightness in the throat and chest, or difficulty breathing. A prolonged or chronic experience of the fight or flight reaction can have serious mental health consequences. Our bodies simply cannot sustain this tension long-term. Therefore, it is essential to learn ways of engaging the body’s natural relaxation response, which originates in our body’s parasympathetic nervous system.
When we perceive a real threat, our body activates the fight or flight response. Consequently, the body begins a process of intensification with the sole intention of protecting the body. Our sympathetic nervous system directs all resources toward fighting off a threat or fleeing from danger. Anxiety or worry is caused by experiencing fearful thoughts which in turn activate this biological alarm system. Without realizing it, you can develop a pattern of responding to situations fearfully, consequently activating fight or flight inappropriately. If this pattern persists long enough, you’ll feel constantly on edge and begin to believe that this feeling is normal, convincing yourself “that’s just how I am.”
This biological alarm system is controlled by our Amygdala. According to PNAS (Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences), the amygdala is commonly thought to form the core of a neural system for processing fearful and threatening stimuli, including detection of threats and activation of appropriate fear-related behaviors in response to threatening or dangerous stimuli.
A healthy Amygdala is like a well-functioned smoke detector that will alert us immediately that an external stimulus is a threat. For some people, this smoke detector will remain silent even when there is a raging fire nearby. For some other people, the act of cooking will set the alarm off.
The good news is that through therapy and cognitive exercise, you can tame your over-sensitive Amygdala.