Make Fear and Anxiety Your Friends, Not Your Enemies

Never serve anxiety or fear, always make them serve you

Posted May 18, 2014

Compulsive overeating, like alcoholism and all of the other “isms” are collateral consequences of stress regulation.  A lion share of the problems lies with the brain’s inability to process anxiety differently from fear. Understanding the difference between fear and anxiety is important because it helps promote better emotional control, habit management, and healthier, happier relationships and lives.

Fear is a signal that alerts the brain of an actual threat and tangible danger.  For example, you open your door to leave your house expecting the usual: your paper on the porch, birds singing, and the fresh smell of morning air.  Instead, you open the door to birds screeching and dropping from the sky because of the suffocating stench of a Sasquatch defecating on your lawn as it chews up your newspaper.  The charges towards you with gnashing teeth and a hungry look in its beady eyes. Immediately you feel butterflies in the pit of your stomach, nausea, your heart rate increases, you start breathing heavily as you run inside, slam the door, and call 9-1-1, while screaming like an adolescent girl at a Justin Beiber concert.  What you have just experienced is fear. That is, your brain is preparing for the eventuality of fight-or-flight by initiating the distress response in reacting to actual threat caused by immediate, tangible danger. 

Now imagine this:  two weeks later, you open your door, there is no newspaper, and you do not hear any birds.  You think Sasquatch is back. Immediately you feel butterflies in the pit of your stomach, nausea, your heart rate increases, you start breathing heavily as you run inside, slam the door, and call 9-1-1, while screaming like an adolescent girl at a Justin Beiber concert.  What you have just experienced is anxiety. That is, your brain is preparing for the eventuality of fight-or-flight by initiating the distress response in reacting to the perception of threat, which is not generating by immediate, tangible danger.   There is no difference between the two scenarios in terms of brain response and the physiological aftermath.  The difference is, in the former you are in actual danger, whereas in the latter you only believe you are in danger.

The brain is like a very resourceful girl, who only has a couple of dresses, but knows how to stretch a limited wardrobe by accessorizing.  Stress regulation and the preparation for the fight-or-flight response is the brain’s basic black dress, which brings us to another widely misunderstood basic scientific concept.  Any change in homeostasis, i.e., everything we hear, taste, smell, touch, or see causes stress.  However not all stress is distress. Most people do not understand this, for which we can thank lazy language and sloppy scientists.  This is important because it explains the brain’s mantra and strategic modus operendi, i.e., “I have to protect you in an ugly world that gets uglier and more complicated by the minute. Also, I am not just dealing with the grief; I am dealing with the good stuff as well. Not to mention, I have not had a new Operating System since the Pliocene epoch. I am overwhelmed and busy processing trillions of commands. My only hope is to prioritize my experiences, by assigning emotional valence to them and filing them in hippocampus under: good stuff, sexy stuff, important stuff, and who-the-hell cares.  Except for the memories of terrifying experiences, which I scribble on my amygdala like Sonny Corleone wrote Luca Brazzi’s phone number on the wall when Don Corleone got shot. In addition, lollipop, because my job is so brutal, I have no choice but to anticipate, simplify and consolidate—deal with it!” 

Significant experiences, such as a hungry Sasquatch trying to eat you, become amygdala-based memories.  The amygdala is the fear center of the brain. When you encounter stimulus that triggers an amygdala-based memory, or even a highly charged hippocampal memory, the ever-anticipating, consolidating, and simplifying brain will enact the distress response every time.

The distress response occurs in the old mammal brain, where the motto is, “survive now, and ask questions later.”  When the old mammal brain engages the thinking part of the brain disengages because surviving Sasquatch was dependent on doing, not thinking. Hence, when the brain suspects Sasquatch’s return, it initiates the distress response.  If it is not Sasquatch you ran for no reason, but you live to tell about it. However, if it is Sasquatch and do not react, the outcome might be fatal.  That is how the ancients survived predators, and we still utilize the same mechanism to survive threat today.  Imagine a cave man or woman in Los Angeles at Rush Hour, trying to get to the grocery store, or inside the grocery store. Our brain is that cave person, and while technology and society has drastically changed, its biology has remained static. It is that smart girl, with the limited wardrobe, having to make it work with different jewelry and scarf combinations.  What do I mean by that? 

I mean the Sasquatch encounters in our lives that cause highly emotionally valent memories come in many forms. Sometimes they come as early life trauma, sometimes as social suffering passed on from generation to generation. Sometimes the beast is a traumatic event like a war experience, automobile crash, rape, abandonment, or persistent race or gender-based micro-distressors.  The triggers are equally as various, but the response is the same, because the brain is a girl with one black dress. It has to make it work for cocktail parties, funerals, and semi-formal events. Thus, no matter what causes the distress the hippocampus signals the amygdala, which relays to the hypothalamus, which throws it to the pituitary gland, which instantly signals the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands release adrenaline and other chemicals into the blood stream, causing rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure and improved circulation to carry oxygen and blood to the large limbs for fighting or fleeing. At the same time that blood is flowing to your lungs and muscles, less of it is reaching other organs including your stomach. This and other hormonal changes cause the butterflies in your stomach. 

 The brain and gut are very connected. Since the brain anticipates, based on the formula: this is happening, therefore, that will follow, sometimes the brain-gut connection causes the distress response to become a downward synergy.  That is, the physiological sequelae, described above, feeds back to the brain, and the brain detects it and reacts by mounting an anticipatory distress response to distress that it has already responded to. This is an occupational hazard of the ancient brain in the modern world under the heavy burden of extreme cognitive load.  Think cave person in the supermarket.

“You can’t always get what you want. But…you get what you need.” –Rolling Stones

Being in distress mode because of anxiety, opposed to actual fear, is like having your parking brake on while you are driving—not good, and costly down the line. Our ancient brains operate at a deficit in this advanced world. As with any challenge, it only becomes a liability if you allow it to.  Again, perception is the key.  Anxiety, like emotion, is just energy.  You can use that energy to destroy yourself or the world around you.  You can also use that energy to underwrite any enterprise, especially creative projects.   

Anxiety is like nighttime. No matter how dark it is, or how long it lasts, sunrise will come.  Therefore, instead of expending energy to fight anxiety, use the energy from anxiety to fund your energy consuming endeavors. For example, I am terrified because my husband is having open-heart surgery tomorrow.  I want to eat; I want to drink whiskey, and I want to do prescription drugs because that is how my brain accessorizes its basic black dress.  However, I chose to use my anxiety energy to write this blog post, exposing anxiety for what it is, because that makes a better fashion statement. Thank you for being here.  As always, remain fabulous and phenomenal. 

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About the Author

Billi Gordon, Ph.D., is a co-investigator in the Ingestive Behaviors & Obesity Program, Center for the Neurobiology of Stress, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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