Some people are called to explore the vicissitudes of depression; Johann Hari comes to mind. Other are tasked with uncovering the underpinnings of eating disorders, like Anita Johnston, author of the exquisitely wise book, Eating in the Light of the Moon. For a myriad of reasons, both conscious and unconscious, I have been drawn along the pathways of deeply understanding anxiety, intrusive thoughts, panic, and compulsions. I have become over these many decades a devotee of anxiety, an apprentice to this symptom that expresses itself in so many ways for so many people. Anxiety calls to me both personally through my own lived experience and those of my kids and professionally through the extraordinary clients and course members who have found their way to my work.
This abiding curiosity to understand anxiety from multiple angles has recently led me to the book, Rewire Your Anxious Brain, by Catherine M. Pittman and Elizabeth M. Karle, for I’ve been wanting to understand the neuroscience of anxiety: what is happening in the brain when we have an anxious response? I was also curious – and a bit nervous! – to see how much of the neuroscience would corroborate or contradict my own work with anxiety. Would I find that the neuroscience scientifically supports what depth psychologists have known for decades? Or would the neuroscience invalidate the depth work around anxiety that I’ve taught and written about for two decades.
Thankfully, it was the former (phew!): the science supports what psychologists have long known. Just as science through brain imaging can now explain what Buddhist meditators have known for thousands of years about the effects of meditation, neuroscience can now explain not only what is happening in the moment of anxiety but also how to rewire the brain so that we can heal at the neurological root. In other words, science explains the how of the what that psychology and spirituality have taught for a very long time.
Why is the how helpful? Because the anxious brain is also the inquisitive brain, and when we’re working with anxiety it helps enormously to understand why something is important. I can tell you that meditation will help you grow your witness self so that you’re less reactive in an amplified moment which will help you access the choice point for how to respond, but when you read the scientific evidence of how meditation helps your brain be less reactive, you’re more inclined to commit to the practice. The anxious brain responds well to facts and science, and it’s this very cognitive understanding that is part of the rewiring process. For when you can respond to the heightened anxiety response with a calm voice of, “Oh, I know what’s happening right now. This is my amygdala letting me know that there’s a real or perceived threat and my cortex is misinterpreting the threat,” you immediately set into a motion a new neural pathway in your brain that can see the “threat” through a non-threatening lens.
Let’s back up a bit. Here’s what Rewire the Anxious Brain teaches:
The field of neuroscience has revealed an extraordinary amount of information about how our brains process information. It teaches us that we have a cortex in the front of the brain that is the thinking part and an amygdala in the middle of the brain that is the emotional part. The amygdala triggers the anxious response while the cortex offers its interpretation or misinterpretation of the stimulus. This is a highly simplified explanation of the cortex and amygdala, but even this basic information will help you understand what’s happening in an anxious moment.
With the understanding that part of the job of the cortex is to anticipate and interpret, let’s break this down using the example of relationship anxiety. Please keep in mind that if you don’t struggle with relationship anxiety this can be applied to any hook onto which anxiety hangs its hat: health, sexuality, money, germs, social, harm.
Amygdala Trigger: I feel anxious in the presence of my partner or while thinking about my partner. My heart races, my stomach drops, my chest tightens.
Cortex interprets: “I don’t love my partner.” “There’s someone better for me.” “I’m not in love enough.” And all the ways that relationship anxiety expresses itself.
Relationship anxiety begins.
You can see that the anxiety begins with the somatic response of the amygdala and then the relationship anxiety takes hold because of a misinterpretation of a normal anxious response. What if you interpreted the initial anxiety response through the lens of the Wise Mind that could say something like, “Of course you’re scared. To love is to risk my heart, and this vulnerability is terrifying” instead of through the lens of the amygdala, whose entire job is to scan the horizon looking for danger and the cortex, who attaches first-response interpretations to the situation?
These primal parts of our brain served us very well when we needed to be on high alert for physical danger, like snakes and tigers and fires, but are they still serving us? I actually believe they are. And this is where the information of neuroscience ends and the wisdom of depth psychology begins.
Through the depth psychological lens, we can understand that an element of relationship anxiety is misinterpreting the normal and understandable anxious response of being in a relationship with a loving, emotionally available, safe partner. When we follow the misinterpretation of the cortex, we follow a red herring, for it’s unlikely that the problem is your loving partner. The problem – or the opportunity – is to examine your lifetime of fear of love and life that will only be triggered in the presence of real love.
If we understood the link between love and fear, if we taught young people that at some point in a healthy relationship – anywhere from date 1 to 20 years in – anxiety might arise and your first response might be to interpret the anxiety as a message that you’re with the wrong partner, so much suffering could be avoided.
Let’s rewind again as this is somewhat complex and I want to make sure that the steps are clear:
The amygdala’s job is to scan looking for danger. In the case of relationship anxiety, it interprets healthy love as danger for two primary reasons:
- If you’ve never experienced or witnessed healthy love, it’s unfamiliar and we register unfamiliar as dangerous.
- Real, safe, available love IS dangerous in the sense that it involves risk. Nowhere are our hearts more vulnerable than in the realm of real love.
So the amygdala is correct is sensing danger! But then the cortex comes in and misinterprets the trigger response, and that’s when understandable fear morphs into anxiety.
The key here, as I’ve discussed in many posts including this one, is to practice changing your response to the trigger. If you believe that your triggers are evidence that you’re with the wrong partner, you’re reinforcing that neural pathway in your brain that equates your partner with “wrong”, which will only increase your anxiety. But if you challenge your initial interpretation while tending to the core fears and wounds around love and also learning to work effectively with vulnerability and the fear of loss/uncertainty, you begin to rewire your brain and embark on a path of true healing.
So here the healing path is both on-the-spot – practicing how you respond in the moment to the anxiety – and deep dive, which is the path of working with a therapist and/or committing to a journaling and meditation practice so that you can attend to the anxiety at the root. Both rewire the brain. Both are essential. For some people, the cognitive understanding of what’s happening in their brains is enough to break free from anxiety. But for many others, especially when there’s a lifetime of anxiety that has attached to different themes, they need to delve into the underlayers that comprise the anxiety, which is their pain, overlooked trauma, and the spiritual opportunity of becoming more comfortable with loss and uncertainty.
The amygdala and cortex are doing their jobs well, and they’re pointing us in the direction of elevating our relationship to fear. While many of us are no longer living with threats of physical danger (I recognize that this isn’t all of us, by any means), we’re rising up Maslow’s hierarchy and being invited to work with the emotional and spiritual layers of fear. Yes, there is still danger; amygdala is registering accurately. And yes cortex still needs to interpret; but it needs an upgrade in terms of its information database regarding love, health, bodies, sexuality, dreams, and metaphors, for it’s difficult to interpret accurately if we don’t have access to accurate information.
This is why I believe that anxiety and panic attacks are modern day initiation rites. As modern people, we’re no longer sent into the forest on a vision quest where we’re asked to confront our fears and build our courage. Instead, anxiety and panic initiate us into our shadow realms so that we can evolve on our healing paths. Anxiety isn’t here to torture you. It’s here to alert you to your pain and invite you to step onto a path of healing, from the level of the brain to the heart to the body to the soul. We’re being asked to rewire on all fronts so that we can shrink fear and grow love. It’s a warrior’s path that takes us into the dark forest of fear and lands us, eventually, into a sunlit clearing where we find our true self. Welcome to the forest.
Note: If you’re struggling with relationship anxiety and would like to receive the support, tools, and information of a deep-dive roadmap that will help you rewire and heal at the root, consider my Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course. You can learn more here.