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Defeating the Anxiety Beast: How Our Body Responds to Anxiety

Anxiety is a beast, but this I'm sure you know. We have all felt that familiar knot form in our stomach and experienced that subtle but pressing discomfort as our heart rate quickens and our breath catches in our throat. We have noticed our thoughts as they begin to race. We have grown fearful as the particularly distressing ones become suddenly sticky. Some of us have found ourselves face-to-face with the painful and alarming reality of a panic attack. To these unlucky friends, I say welcome to the fright club of which no one wants to be a member. The only rule? Talk about fright club. After all, fear breeds in isolation. We are stronger as a collective than any of us are on our own.

What a lot of people don't know is that anxiety is a beast with two heads, distinct and in need of two different approaches if we wish to slay the whole. While proper beast-fighters may be armed with swords, we can arm ourselves with tools and skills, but first, we must understand what we're up against. The two heads of The Anxiety Beast stem from different parts of our brain: the cortex and the amygdala. Although they often work in tandem, they are indeed separate, and thus we must attack them separately.

The cortex is the thought center of the brain. Our sticky distressing thoughts emerge and mingle here. They find places to take root and grow. To wage war against these thoughts requires that we challenge them directly. We must look at them, explore them, and question their validity. Often, we must come up with new and opposing thoughts to replace the old ones. We fight thoughts with thoughts, and we frequently win with this approach.

The amygdala, on the other hand, is home to the commonly known fight-or-flight response. This is no place for thoughts. In fact, the amygdala does not respond to thoughts at all. It is a sensation-hungry being. Our amygdala receives signals from our five senses and reacts accordingly. If it senses danger, whether this is real or perceived, it goes into overdrive. Cue the sweating, the heart palpitations, the numbness in our fingers and toes, and while we're at it, cue the cortex too. Our thoughts often respond to our amygdala, spiraling out of control and creating disaster scenarios, but this connection doesn't go both ways. Attempting to fight the amygdala with rational thought is like screaming into an empty void. No one is listening.

Instead, we must soothe the amygdala with somatic exercises. We must prove to it that we are safe, that its reaction was merely a false alarm. See, this head of the beast is quite lovable once you get to know it. I imagine it as friendly, just overbearing with a tendency to smother us in its desperate attempts to protect us. Like a goofy golden retriever barking at a falling leaf, it truly believes it's saving us from imminent danger. Like this golden retriever, we must train our amygdala, but this will not work until we've learned to calm it. Muscle relaxation, deep breathing, and meditation are all ways we can show our amygdala that its alarm bells are mistaken.

With our understanding of how the two heads of The Anxiety Beast operate, we can begin to recognize which one is attacking us. Then we can respond accordingly. When we are dealing with the cortex and its thoughts, we can arm ourselves with new and more realistic thoughts. When we are dealing with the amygdala and its broken alarm bells, we must learn how to show our body it is safe. This is the blueprint for defeating The Anxiety Beast. It may take a lot of practice, but alas, most worthwhile skills do.

The fright club is filled with resilient, daring, and deeply empathetic people who have fought The Anxiety Beast for many years. Throughout these battles, two pertinent truths have become clear. The first is that us fright club members can put up one hell of a fight, especially when we work together. The second is that a carefully planned and well-practiced strategy is key. This is why we arm ourselves first with knowledge. Only once we understand The Anxiety Beast can we lead ourselves and each other to victory against it.

Further Reading Recommendations

Rewiring Your Anxious Brain by Catherine M. Pittman and Elizabeth M. Karle

For more book recommendations from the Windhorse Counseling team, browse our online collaboration with BookLove here!

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