A few words on the brain and how anxiety is processed in the brain, what areas of the brain are involved when you are anxious, and how the brain communicates with its different parts will help you to better understand your anxiety and how to overcome it. The brain consists of 3 parts: the Brain Stem, the Midbrain, and the Neo-Cortex. Here is a brief description of each:

The Brain Stem
This is the oldest part of the brain. It is responsible for basic attention and wakefulness. It is common to all reptiles, so it is often called the “reptilian brain.” It causes your heart to beat and your automatic breathing.

The Midbrain
This part of your brain is called the “animal brain” or “emotional brain.” It is instinctive and reactive, and does not involve a lot of conscious thought.

In the fear response, a small part of the midbrain, called the Amygdala, is very active. This part of your brain alerts you to danger on an “all or nothing” principle. It is turned on or off as it identifies whether something is a threat or not. In the case of Anxiety Disorders the Amygdala falsely recognizes non-threatening triggers (like certain situations and sensations) as threatening. You teach or condition the Amygdala to warn you if something is dangerous by how you interact with the situation. If you consistently leave a situation that is not really dangerous when you feel anxiety, over time the Amygdala will “learn” to warn you even more strongly every time the situation presents itself.

When there really is danger, the primitive warning from the Amygdala has survival value. It can activate other parts of the brain, such as the Brain Stem, to speed up heart rate and breathing as part of the Fight or Flight Response. Once something has been conditioned in the Amygdala to trigger a fear response, it will warn you of danger every time you enter the situation. In doing so, the Amygdala can override common sense. Then higher order thinking, like reasoning and logic, do not work!

The Neo-Cortex
This is the largest part of your brain and the most evolved in humans. It uses reason and logic to solve problems. You can use it to help more accurately identify when something only seems threatening versus when something is truly dangerous. Ordinarily the Neo-Cortex sends messages back to the Amygdala to stop the fear response when it is not needed, but in Anxiety Disorders these “brakes” do not work: the fear response generated by the Amygdala takes over and you respond accordingly, usually by avoiding.

Getting Balance Back
To evaluate threats properly, all the parts of the brain need to work well together. The pathways between the Midbrain (the Amygdala) and the Neo-Cortex can become better linked through using the self help Cognitive Behavioral Skills taught by Cure Your Panic. The result is better communication between the different parts of the brain and overall anxiety reduction for you!

Scientists have discovered when people face their fears rather then avoid, using Cognitive Behavioral Skills, there are detectable brain changes in the pathway between the Neo-Cortex and the Midbrain. The main effect of these changes is a dramatic decrease in the activity of the Midbrain: it quiets down and approaches what a non-anxiety disordered brain looks like! (click here to learn more if interested)

Key points related to the Anxious Brain

  • The brain has 3 main parts: the Brainstem, the Midbrain, and the Neo-Cortex.
  • The Midbrain is the “Fear Center” of your brain and houses the Amygdala, which is involved in fear conditioning.
  • The Neo-Cortex is the “smart part” of your brain, and is involved in using reason and logic.
  • The Amygdala can be conditioned to activate your fear response even in the absence of true danger. If you continue to treat the situation as dangerous, especially by avoiding it, you teach your Amygdala to warn you more strongly, and you can even develop panic in these situations!
  • With Anxiety Disorders, the brain is not communicating properly with all of its different parts. The Neo-Cortex is not able to get the message through to the Amygdala that there is nothing to fear.
  • There are detectable changes in the brain when Cognitive Behavioral Skills are consistently used and fears are faced.
  • Your behavior, what you do or do not do, has an impact on your brain and how it recognizes something as threatening or not.

As a general principle, to the degree that you face fears without avoidance you will decrease fear response. There is a special way of confronting fears that comes from scientific research. The term that scientist use when you face a fear (enter into a fear producing situation) is referred to as an Exposure.

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