Anxiety – Research Sheds Light on Why the Worry

Anxiety - Why the Worry?

People with anxiety have an extraordinary ability to anticipate potential problems. This makes them great to be with – they are the ones with the plan B, the plan C, the spare batteries, the phone charger and the escape route. Being able to anticipate trouble can be a great strength, but like any strength, too much can cause a metaphorical headache. 

When the anxiety becomes intense, it can lead to avoidance of experiences that would likely bring more joy than trouble. For people who don’t understand anxiety, or for those who cruise through their days with a more laid back connection with the world, it can seem as though this avoidance and other anxiety-driven behaviours are more a matter of ‘playing it safe’. Not so, says new research.

People with anxiety have something in common. Their brains have a unique wiring that is different to people who don’t have anxiety. This causes them to interpret things as harmful, even if they aren’t. The scientists call is ‘overgeneralisation’. Now to explain.

What is it about anxious brains?

We are all wired to notice and respond to threats in the environment. When we notice something potentially dangerous, our body gets us ready to fight the danger or run from it. This is something that happens in all of us, and it’s a healthy, normal thing to do. It’s one of the things that has kept us humans alive, so when it’s happening in the right dose, it’s a great thing.

For people with anxiety, this happens a little too much. An anxious brain is an overprotective brain. It does exactly what healthy, normal brains are meant to do, but more often. What this means is that people with anxiety tend to overgeneralise – their brains and their bodies respond to things as though they are dangerous or threatening, even when they aren’t. 

A recent study explored whether or not this was due to the way people with anxiety perceive things in the environment.

The Research – What They Did

A group of people with anxiety were trained to associate three distinct tones with one of three outcomes: money loss, money gain or no consequence.

Next, participants were asked to listen to one of 15 tones and to indicate whether or not they had heard the tone in their earlier training. If they guessed correctly, they were rewarded with money.

The money was the incentive to discriminate between the tones. If the participants overgeneralised, and weren’t able to tell the difference between the tones, they would mistake tones they hadn’t heard for tones they had, and vice versa. This would mean no money.

What they Found

The study showed that people with anxiety were more likely to mistake a new tone for one they had heard earlier. They had a ‘perceptual inability to discriminate’, which means that they were less able to notice the differences between the sounds. They were more likely to associate a new, unheard tone with money loss or gain.

What it Means

We all own a custom made brain. This is a great thing. Guided by our experiences, our brains develop to be the best brain for our own individual circumstances and needs. Every experience we have changes our brain in some way. These changes will eventually influence future behaviour and experiences. This is referred to as the plasticity of the brain.The brain is plastic in that it is open to influence and change.

The brain’s plasticity (the ability of the brain to change according to experience) allows us to adapt and grow in response to our environment, but it can also lead to changes in the brain that are less helpful.

In people who have anxiety, emotional experiences cause changes in the brain that persist even after the emotional experience is over. These changes cause difficulties in being able to tell the difference between the original experience and subsequent experiences.

What this means is that people with anxiety will have a similar emotional response to new and unrelated or irrelevant situations, even when those situations would not typically warrant the same response. 

These fundamental differences in people with anxiety cause them to perceive the world differently. Rather than assessing the potential harm of things in the environment, people with anxiety tend to overgeneralise and interpret everything as potentially harmful.

As part of the study, researchers used brain imaging to measure brain responses and found that there were noticeable differences in the brains of people with anxiety, and those without. The differences were found in the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for the experience of intense emotion, such as fear and anxiety, and the perception of potential danger in the environment. It is also responsible for the changes that happen in the body as a result of the fight or flight response, the body’s natural response to potential threat or danger. Increased activity in the amygdala has been associated with panic attacks and anxiety.

The researchers stress that the flexibility of the brain that leads to anxiety isn’t ‘bad’. 

Anxiety traits can be completely normal, and even beneficial evolutionarily. Yet an emotional event, even minor sometimes, can induce brain changes that might lead to full-blown anxiety. Rony Paz, Researcher, Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

The avoidance that is often driven by anxiety is physiological and is not a choice. It’s not a question of won’t, it’s a question of can’t. If you love someone with anxiety, understanding this will hopefully help you understand those times of avoidance that don’t make sense. The ‘no’ isn’t to you, it’s to a situation or an experience that will trigger the feeling of being in danger. 

For anyone with anxiety, or for anyone who loves someone with anxiety, it is also important to remember that brains can change. Anxious brains are strong brains – wilful, determined, cautious – and as much as brains can change in ways that aren’t helpful, they are also open to changing in ways that are. Mindfulness and exercise are two things that have consistently been shown to strengthen the brain against anxiety. This doesn’t mean that anxiety will completely go away. We all need a little bit of anxiety to predict danger and to keep us safe. It’s about bringing as close as possible to more manageable levelsbut the more we can understand about the workings of the brain, the closer we get to understanding how to influence it in ways that will lead to a healthier, more enriched way of living.

[irp posts=”1100″ name=”The Things I’ve Learned About Anxiety – That Only People With Anxiety Could Teach Me”]

36 Comments

Philippa

Oh how I wish all this information had been around when I was a child…and anxious to the point of almost being agoraphobic. I occasionally have panic attacks still but it is managed. I have three children and all at times have had some anxiety. Have just bought your book for master 8 as he has regular bouts. Your work is so helpful. Thank you so much

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Dr Mixs

Wonderfully written… what I love is not that it’s being made simple… but that the science behind it actually quite straight forward and there is no reason to judge because it is honestly “just” the brain.

Understanding the basics of the brain can be so liberating and so powerful and I’ve seen it with clients over and over again. It takes so much pressure off to know how one of our major organs actually work.

I also love that, in a way, you point out that anxiety is possibly even sourced in a person’s strength. When that strength (like a unique way of thinking or an inability to discern, which could be fantastic and maybe even linked to greater empathy, getting along with all types of people etc.,) is un-managed it can become a weakness.

These articles inspire me… thank you.

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Hey Sigmund

Thank you! I’m pleased this resonates with you. You’re so right – it’s such a powerful thing to understand what drives the things we do.

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Grace

Thank you! Great article an eye opener for educators dealing with anxious children.

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Grace. ]Educators have such an important role in relation to kids with anxiety (and all kids of course!) and they can really make a big difference.

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Rose

Hi Karen, I’m wondering what you think about anxiety and genetic predisposition. Is anxiety entirely environmental – caused by experience that develops into patterned behaviour or are there links to the physical make up of the brain and the experiences of the parents, grandparents etc.
thanks in advance for your thoughts.

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Amber

And my apologies I agree that this is a great article with empathy and information. It has been a long time since I was touched by a writer. Thank you so much.

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Rose,

So far there hasn’t been an ‘anxiety gene’ found, but there does seem to be some sort of genetic vulnerability. What’s likely is that both genes and environment play a part. Anxious parents might be more likely to model anxious behaviour, for example. This might not make a difference to some children, but if might if the child has a more sensitive temperament, it might.

This in no way means that parents are to blame for their child’s anxiety – I really want to make that clear. The same parent who models anxious behaviour would also likely model brave behaviour, resilience, good decision making, emotional intelligence. Anxiety seems to be a complicated mix of environment, behaviour, genetics, history and temperament.

The important thing to remember is that even if there is an ‘anxious gene’, genes aren’t destiny. We have learned over the last decade or so that we have a remarkable capacity to change our brain – anxious brains too. What this means is that it’s possible over time to strengthen a brain against anxiety through lifestyle factors and behaviour. It might not necessarily mean that the anxiety goes away, but you can ‘nurture the nature’ and make it less intrusive.

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Tersea Gouws

I wish I could share this article with ever synical disbeliever and every person with anxiety. So many facts and so much empathy.

As a Type A personality, I used to lose consciousness after a panic attack. Only when I developed colon cancer and experienced trauma upon trauma, followed by chemotherapy, did I finally get to a place where I thought: “It honestly cannot get any worse than this… panic attacks, compared to what I’m going through now, are nothing. This is real life or death stuff.”

I haven’t had a panic attack since.

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Kat

This helped me understand myself better. I struggled with things more after a riding accident & had to really push myself to do things around horses that I used to enjoy & found that upsetting & frustrating. I really did look for ways to avoid related things all together. I never expect that as I now have a much suitable horse. Your article explained why. Thanks for posting

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Hey Sigmund

Kat, it takes courage and strength to come back after a frightening accident and it sounds as though you have plenty of both. I’m pleased this information has helped you to get some clarity.

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Steve

Some of the things I did when I was young left me with anxiety that was hard to deal with every time I walked in to a new job. Being an electrician in the lumber industry my jobs have changed a lot. Thanks for the good information I’m finally starting to recover from severe anxiety. Mostly after I discover that the people around me are not going to turn on me. (Generally speaking)

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Hey Sigmund

You’re very welcome Steve. Your experience with anxiety and changing jobs makes sense. I’m pleased you’re starting to find a way through. Keep moving forward.

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Amy

Thank you for this straightforward article! I have so many friends and relatives who completely misunderstand our daughter’s anxiety, which just makes it tougher on her! I will be sharing with all those who say she just needs to pull up her bootstraps and get over it!! Thank you!

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Hey Sigmund

Amy you’re welcome. If only anxiety was a case of ‘getting over it’. I wish this was an unusual response but there’s still a lot of misunderstanding around anxiety, even in the most well-meaning people. We’re working on that though.

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Wendy

Thanks again for another very helpful article! Being hyper sensitive, also called Sensory Defensive, and often anxious, I found this article to be reassuring that I am not crazy for experiencing life differently from my family and friends:) I plan on sharing this with my grown children in hopes it will help them understand me better! Thanks again!

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Hey Sigmund

You’re welcome Wendy. There is such a good reason for the way you feel – definitely not abnormal and definitely not crazy! I’m pleased the article was able to give you some reassurance.

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Deborah

I agree with Shona- this was beautifully explained without any judgement.
If possible, I would like to see an expansion on the concept of mindfulness and it’s application with this condition.
Thanks for all your insight.

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Sue F

Deborah, I found a link to mindfulness on Karen’s article. It’s highlighted in blue in the last paragraph. Hope this helps.

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Melanie

Excellent post! This will be such a great resource to share with others who are often too critical of anxious people and claim they’re just negative in their ways of thinking. Hopefully, this will enlighten and instill compassion in those who don’t understand anxiety and the fact that previous emotional experiences have influenced the anxious person to behave in the way they do. Definitely sharing & pinning!

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks very much Melanie. Anxiety can be so hard to understand from the outside and it can too easily be dismissed as a choice. If only it was a choice! It just makes things so much harder for the people with anxiety. Hopefully as we understand more about it this will change. (And thank you for sharing the article!)

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Lela

Great article Karen! I have about 20 relatives I’m sending it to so they can understand people with anxiety better because they think anxious people are negative, don’t want to have fun, avoid things that mean “nothing”. Love the quote: “Yet an emotional event, even minor sometimes, can induce brain changes that might lead to full-blown anxiety”

Thank you!

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Shona

You have such a lovely, non judgemental way of writing. These articles are so useful and beautifully merge the reality and science of being human?

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Kathryn Pearson

Great article Karen. It made me immediately think of High sensitive people again – being hyper aware, hyper vigilant and the fight and flight response kicking fiercely in to protect the individual – regardless of the situation. And I like Sue F’s comment about the event causing ‘residue’… 😉

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Sue F

A great article Karen. The following definitely struck a chord with me: “What this means is that people with anxiety will have a similar emotional response to new and unrelated or irrelevant situations, even when those situations would not typically warrant the same response”. I notice that this has happened on occasion with me and I am now more mindful of my reactions. It’s so interesting how there is that “residue” of the original event.

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Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare

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