Anxiety, ugh. No one enjoys experiencing anxiety. Most of my patients (I would add, most people) experience anxiety. The symptoms can range from dread and worry to a panic attack. When anxiety begins to affect behavior and interferes with life, it’s time to consider therapy. Within our therapy sessions, I help you learn new strategies to manage anxiety. The purpose of our sessions is to provide the space to unravel the tangled web of anxiety generated from brain structure and chemicals and our experiences.

The brain is wired to sound the alarm in response to perceiving a threat. It screams, “Danger! Do something. Now!” It is an important mechanism for survival. But anxiety is our brain screaming that we are in danger when, in reality, we are safe. Managing anxiety is re-training our brain to generate a sense of safety and wellness rather than reacting to a misguided sense of threat.

So, why do we think we are in danger when we are actually safe? Hang with me as I delve a bit into the brain structure. The brain’s frontal lobe, just behind the forehead, houses the complex activities of awareness, thinking, and personality. Anxiety is generated by a different part of the brain called the amygdala, a more simple brain structure.

Over the eons, as the frontal lobes evolved and became more sophisticated, the amygdala did not evolve. It stayed simple, similar to other mammals. In its simplicity, the amygdala will sound the alarm if it perceives a threat, regardless of accuracy. It’s like a home security system that randomly sounds because someone tried to break into your home two years ago. Clearly, you would not keep a security system that randomly and mistakenly sounds the alarm. Unfortunately, we cannot update our brain to detect REAL threat accurately. Let’s examine why the amygdala is so faulty.

Back in the day, cave dwellers survived when they used previous experiences to respond to new threats. They continued to live another day because their brain said some version of, “REMEMBER last spring when your neighbor, Harry, got squashed by a woolly mammoth stampede? Don’t let that be you! Quickly, run and hide.” The amygdala uses the experience of an old threat to predict a potential new threat. But, its accuracy is faulty. For example, sensing that a flock of robins is as threatening as a woolly mammoth stampede. It wants you to be safe. The inability to distinguish between old threat and new threat is anxiety. Congratulations, anxiety is the evolutionary prize for winning the game of survival of the fittest.

We no longer need to hide from a woolly mammoth stampede. But, as we go about our lives, we all experience threats or wounds. Unfortunately, nearly everyone experiences an emotional or psychological wound or even trauma. They can be large wounds like witnessing physical violence or more subtle relationship wounds like betrayal, abandonment, or shame. Most likely, we were wounded in childhood. Therefore, many adults experience anxiety because the amygdala is sounding the alarm even though we are no longer as vulnerable as we were as a child.

I’ll give you an example of my anxiety created from a childhood wound. One of my elementary school teachers created a music center in a refrigerator box where we could bang on all types of fun percussion instruments: xylophone, tambourine, maracas. One lovely spring day, as we came in from recess, I got my chance to shake. I jumped in and was hitting the tambourine like Cher (it was the 70s). Suddenly and dramatically, the door flew open, my teacher grabbed me by the arm, pulled me out of the box, and spanked me on the butt three times. I was mortified. It got worse. I had to endure the walk of shame back to my desk, avoiding eye contact with my peers and not crying. Lesson learned (my woolly mammoth): you never know when you will piss off an adult, and all hell will break loose. It taught me to watch out for a moment when you are in a viva la vida; violence can reign on you like a bolt of thunder. Even as an adult, I knew not to get lost in my creative mind. Remember: be on guard. My amygdala was lying to me.

It is likely you have a moment from childhood or later in life that told you to be on guard for danger despite being safe. Through my own therapy, I learned to create an awareness of safety and well-being and not see a woolly mammoth stampede in a flock of robins. I can help you untangle the wires that mistakenly tell you are experiencing a threat to instead generate an awareness of the moment and sense safety.