It is clear that coping with a serious illness is one of the most difficult experiences a person will have to endure in their lifetime. It should be a surprise to no one then that anxiety is the most common response to a new or terminal diagnosis. Once the shock and disbelief subside, the residual emotion is anxiety. Neuroscience points not only to a deeper understanding of the neurobiology of anxiety but also to some very effective strategies that can help to relieve it.
In the range of possible emotions anxiety is a normal human experience. Anxiety happens when the amygdala (part of the brain’s limbic system or emotional control center), senses trouble. The amygdala, acts like a smoke detector in your brain. When it senses threat, real or imagined, it floods the body with hormones and chemical to mobilize a response. Once again, this is a normal heathy brain response – the sympathetic “fight or flight” response that keeps us alive.
Make no mistake, being given a complicated diagnosis is perceived by the brain as a serious threat and will trigger the amygdala like a five-alarm fire is taking place. The emergency in your mind is mirrored in your brain and body. Chemicals surge through your body activating immediate physical and emotional responses. In the short term this is a critical and even necessary, response designed to make you react. The problem arises when this fight or flight response persists beyond the temporary into a persistent overactivation.
This state of limbic overactivation, perpetuates the feeling of overwhelm and uneasiness we feel when we are anxious. When the amygdala jams the brain on high alert, flooding it with chemicals and hormones, it triggers a series of changes that send the entire body into a state of unrelenting anxiety. Here’s the thing, when the amygdala predominates, it takes the prefrontal cortex (the rational, thinking, decision making part of your brain) offline, making it hard for you to think straight.
When your emotional brain is constantly signaling threat, no amount of rationalizing will make you feel safe. You are designed to feel anxiety. When perceived danger is high, and perceived can be real or imagined, anxiety levels will be high as we drop into fight or flight mode. Top down models like talk therapy cannot turn off that sympathetic cascade of hormones and neuro chemicals. Why? Because it’s a survival mechanism. Dropping into flight or flight for short bursts is a design feature not a flaw. It’s just not supposed to go and on and on forever.
When the body experiences a threat or severe stressor it’s supposed to go through a sequence of three reactions. The first is your brain and nervous system become activated. This triggers the second response which is you mobilize a response. Finally, once the threat has passed there is a discharge. We see this all the time in the animal kingdom, for example in the dog park once the fight is over, they shake it off and go on their way. The problem arises when the threat fails to dissipate and you never get to discharging the response. You become stuck in a chronic state of fight or flight and when that energy never discharges, it becomes stuck in the body.
Any stressor or traumatic experience that remains unresolved disrupts our biology and our ability to thrive. We now understand better than we ever have how exposure to past or chronic stressors affects our brains, our bodies and our entire lived experience. Neuroscience shows us how traumatic experiences are encoded in the body. Functional MRI studies demonstrate that we don’t remember trauma as a left-brain narrative. It’s NOT stored in explicit memory areas in our brain.
In fact, we remember trauma with our bodies, we encode traumatic memory as a bodily and emotional state, rather than as a narrative. The problem is that when trauma is remembered without words, it is not experienced as an explicit memory. And these implicit physical and emotional memory states do not carry with them the internal sensation that something is being recalled. We act, feel and imagine as though what we are experiencing is our present reality.
Chronic stress maintains the chemical and hormonal reaction in the body. Unresolved this gets trapped in the body and shows up as anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, etc. Here’s the good news – we now know that you can work from the bottom up, creating our own discharge as it were, signaling the brain to stop the sympathetic chemical onslaught. By working through the body to reset the nervous system, you can facilitate changes that you can’t accomplish through your mind.
We can now say beyond a doubt that “bottom up” or EMBODIED practices are the keystone to self-regulating your physiology and changing your anxiety response. When we employ bottom up strategies – when we engage the body, we can dampen amygdala output, quietening the smoke detector in our brain. This effectively, turns off the stress response, stopping the harmful chemical cascade and restoring ease to the system.
Using these methods to reduce your stress response not only helps to manage anxiety but by limiting the harmful chemical surges in your body, you are also promoting a healthier physiological and immune response. This leads to elevated healing and resilience.
Monique Andrews, MSc, DC, DNM | Embodied Neuroscience
cōpe Co-Founder and Community Leader