How Understanding Your Anxiety Response Will Empower You

January 05, 2023
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Categories: Anxiety
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0 min read
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The Grey Matter Matters (Understanding The Fight, Flight, Freeze Response)

Our brains are amazing organs with 100 billion neurons (chemical information transmitters), making it the most complex organ for sure.  Brain research has advanced greatly and yet there is still so much we don’t know about how our brains work.  But we do know that our brains influence all aspects of functioning, including mental health, physiological reactions (the autonomic nervous system), emotional regulation, health conditions, and the fight or flight response (or sympathetic nervous system).  It does a heck of a lot, and it’s incredibly complex.  So learning about how the brain thinks and works offers us the ability to make more of an informed choice, because we can consciously influence all sorts of things.

The Good Ol' (Monkey) Brain

Our brains developed into the beast we know today over 2 million years.  Over that time our environments and circumstances have changed massively.  The oldest part of our brain is the reptilian or monkey brain.  I will hereon refer to this animalic part of us as ‘Monkey’.  Monkey is responsible for our survival so it’s here where we find our internal alarm system (the amygdala).  This sophisticated detection system alerts us when Monkey feels threatened.  To deal with the threat, Monkey initiates an acute stress response, otherwise known as the fight, flight, freeze, or F3 response.

What Does F3 Look Like?

F3 happens when messages are sent from the brain warning of perceived danger.  It is experienced in many anxiety disorders, flooding the body with anxiety or stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.  This results in physiological symptoms.  For example, an increased heart rate and blood pressure as blood pumps into the extremities at an alarming rate.  This is intended to help us fight or run and can feel like tension or tingling in the muscles.  We experience physical symptoms like this and others, as well as emotions of heightened fear, anxiety, and even panic.  All of this is Monkey’s way of getting our attention and making us act toward survival – so what could possibly go wrong? 

The Neocortex (New) Human Brain

Well….you see, sometimes alarm systems give false readings, and this is what often happens in many anxiety disorders, something you will know if you suffer from anxiety.  But, we do have the neocortex.  This is the executive or higher functioning part of our brain, known as the ‘human brain’.  It evolved later as the need for it arose, and deals with sensory perception, emotion, and all manner of cognition.  For example, thought, memory, language, reasoning, learning, judgement, and decision making.  The neocortex is thought to come into full maturation by age 30.  This explains why when we are younger, our judgement and risk-taking behaviours are less measured and thought through. 

The Relationship Between The Old & The New (Brain)

In today’s modern world, we don’t face the same risks to our lives that we once did; back then we were at much higher risk of predation.  But this doesn’t mean we don’t need Monkey.  Because Monkey is a survival expert and does keep us safe.  For instance, your intuition telling you to leave a place because it feels unsafe is usually good advice.  And being able to move out of the way of an oncoming vehicle can only happen so fast because Monkey is keeping an ‘eye’ out.  Yes, you do have (Monkey) ‘eyes in the back of your head’ (where Monkey is situated funnily enough).  Clever Monkey creates the reflex that saves us, even though we’re not even consciously aware of the oncoming vehicle.

What F3 Looks Like In Action

But sometimes Monkey’s F3 activation is unhelpful and causes mental and physical health problems.  Because Monkey hijacks thinking human brain (Neo).  When this happens, we are unable to believe rational Neo and so our behaviour is controlled by how Monkey feels instead.  Like that time you received that email from your boss asking for a meeting; your F3 response kicked in and you entered the meeting in a heightened anxious, and unhelpful state.  Or when you recount that uncomfortable memory of how you acted in that interaction earlier in the day, your F3 response kicks in, creating panic, or other unhelpful emotions that cause you to withdraw and isolate yourself, seek reassurance from others, or comfort in food, or alcohol.  This is because Monkey thinks you’re in immediate danger and begins the cascading chain reaction that results in feelings and physiological symptoms of anxiety, and sometimes depression, when anxiety begins to impact general mood. 

How To Take Control Today

We are at such times held hostage by Monkey and no matter how rational Neo is, she just cannot win the argument with logical reasoning.  This is because to Monkey, survival is highest priority.  Smart, but not always helpful.  And because Monkey reigns over our emotional state in these situations, what Monkey say, Neo Do.  But knowledge really is power, and by knowing what is happening in this old-and-new-brain tug-of-war, we can learn ways to re-train our brain.  Neo can teach Monkey how to more helpfully distinguish perceived threat, from actual threat.  In so doing, we reduce anxiety, and improve mood and physical health because we aren’t overtaken by the release of stress hormones, which impact mental, emotional, and physiological wellbeing.  Indeed, this explains why some physical conditions like muscle inflammation are exacerbated when we are particularly stressed.  The best ‘brain hack’ therefore is to improve communication between your inner Monkey and Human, because as with any relationship, communication is key.  If for you this seems easier said than done, get in touch with us today, and we will gladly mediate.  

Table Of Contents
The Grey Matter Matters (Understanding The Fight, Flight, Freeze Response)
The Good Ol' (Monkey) Brain
What Does F3 Look Like?
The Neocortex (New) Human Brain
The Relationship Between The Old & The New (Brain)
What F3 Looks Like In Action
How To Take Control Today
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About The Author
Rehanna Kauser, Psychologist
Rehanna has studied Psychology and Counselling Psychology at four UK universities. She enjoys working with individuals, couples, and families, and also loves learning, and writing. Having always been fascinated with the human mind and behaviour, her interests marry well with her naturally caring disposition, and affinity toward helping people.
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