I’ve been working through a lot of personal things this year, and one of my biggest breakthroughs was when I dedicated time to learning about how the brain processes emotions, and more important, what is going on in the body whenever we feel anxious or stressed.. When it came to my anxiety, I was in part dealing with anger and fear in relation to a few stressful situations in my life. One of my biggest aha moments was when I learned that fear and anger are not really emotions in the sense that feelings of happiness and sadness are, but rather instinctive survival reactions which happen in a primitive part of the brain called the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex, located in a completely different part of the brain, is responsible for executive functioning. It’s how we focus our attention, anticipate consequences, maintain impulse control, and problem solve. Unfortunately an activated amygdala swiftly shuts down the neural pathway to our prefrontal cortex.
If you’ve ever experienced intense anger, fear, or anxiety (who hasn’t?); then you know that when under extreme stress, even the most level-headed person can act without thinking. We say things we don’t mean, we may exhibit embarrassing or risky behavior, we can become unusually violent, or we may simply have a hard time focusing. In the face of danger, this can be helpful. It's how we manage to display great and sometimes dangerous acts of bravery when needed. But when our stress comes from situations that require a more cognitive approach, our amygdala makes that very difficult.
When we feel angry or afraid, there are a few other major things going on in the brain which are critical to understanding why certain behavioral therapies don't always work or need to include other therapies for a more successful coping strategy. For instance, when under extreme stress, the language center of the brain called the Broca's area, is also less active. So when we are most tempted to argue, to make a point, or simply to articulate to ourselves or someone else how we are feeling; the very part of our brains responsible for articulation, is simply not working properly.
Another key change that happens in the brain and in the body whenever we feel anxious, is the autonomic nervous system gets out of balance. When my physical therapist mentioned something about the effects that chronic pain has on the brain, and I wound up reading a lot about pain, anxiety, and the nervous system; I initially had no idea what the autonomic nervous system is or how it functions. Upon researching the subject, I quickly came upon some important connections related to anxiety and stress.
The autonomic nervous system is made up of the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. When we experience stress (or physical pain for that matter), the parasympathetic nervous system takes a back seat. Responsible for things like digestion, immune system function, how our bodies handle inflammation, heart rate...well, it's no wonder why stress and anxiety can cause a racing heartbeat, nausea, inflammation-related pain, a weakened immune system. I could go on, but I bet you get the idea by now. You might be thinking back to a time when you were under a lot of stress and lost your appetite, for example.
I found this information incredibly interesting, because as a child (while I experienced a lot of stress and trauma from different sources), I also experienced a lot of digestive issues as well as a weak immune system. I went to the doctor several times regarding digestion, and they could never find anything wrong with me. Now I know it was likely due to a frequently de-activated parasympathetic nervous system.
As the parasympathetic nervous system is less active due to stress, our sympathetic nervous system is more active. Governing the fight or flight response, the sympathetic nervous system (or SNS) gets our bodies ready for physical exertion. Much like the deactivation of the prefrontal cortex during stress, the activation of the SNS, while helpful when we do in fact need to flee or fight, can cause more harm than good when the solution needed is more mental than physical. It can for example cause unnecessary muscle tension, sensitivity to light, sluggish digestion, excessive sweating, etc.
There really are so many directions to go with this information, especially when it comes to mental health, and there are numerous applications when it comes to coping with stress. I also feel like I've just barely scratched the surface as it relates to comorbidities commonly shared in instances of chronic pain and impaired mental health. But for now, I want to bring the focus back to anxiety and how we can start to cope with stress by keeping in mind that fear and anger aren't emotions as much as they are knee jerk reactions. Often they can be the result of other feelings that need to be dealt with, but we cannot effectively process those other emotions and thoughts until our amygdala has calmed down and we are no longer angry or afraid.
I do intend to write in more detail on different ways to apply this information. But for now, all that is to simply say, the next time you feel overwhelmed by anxiety or stress, just wait. Don't try to think about how you're feeling. Go for a walk, practice relaxation breathing, listen to music...anything but trying to reason your way out of the stress.