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The Stress of Uncontrollability

Dealing with your brain's anxiety circuit

My friend Izabella hates being in the car when her mom is driving. Her mom is always afraid of getting rear-ended, so when she stops at traffic lights she looks in the rear-view mirror to make sure any car behind isn’t about to hit her. When a car approaches, she gets so tense she lets out an audible gasp.

But really – and you can try this for yourself – if you look in the rear-view when you’re stopped at a red light and see a car driving up behind, it almost always looks like it’s going to hit you. Izabella points this out to her, saying, “Mom, just stop looking in the mirror.”

“I want to know that they’re not going to hit me,” she argues.

Alex Korb
Source: Alex Korb

“But you couldn’t do anything about it anyway,” Izabella responds. But her mom keeps looking. It is too difficult not to look and just be left wondering whether she’s about to get hit.

Unfortunately, research has shown that the more you pay attention to things that are out of your control, the more out of control you feel. Lack of control amps up anxiety and stress, because it increases activity in your brain’s emotional center, the amygdala. That’s why psychologists have discovered that stress goes down and positive emotions go up when we stop focusing on things beyond our control. Out of sight, out of mind. Sometimes simply not looking in the rear-view mirror is enough.

However, the controlled focus approach won’t work with everyone, because each of our brains has a different response to uncertainty and uncontrollability. It turns out that some people’s brains are wired more strongly for anxiety regardless of what they’re consciously paying attention to. For those people, consciously ignoring things out of their control doesn’t help. In fact, it might even make things worse.

In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers used fMRI to look at amygdala activity. Participants were shown emotional images flashed up on a computer screen, which were designed to activate the amygdala (Bishop 2004). The amygdala fired just as it was supposed to. Then, in a clever twist, the researchers asked the subjects to occasionally not pay attention to the images. This simple act of changing focus actually reduced amygdala activity, but only in some of the subjects. The key had to do with their levels of anxiety.

In people who came into the study with low anxiety, simply not paying attention to the images made the amygdala calm down. But in people with high anxiety, the amygdala activity remained the same. The amygdala still activated whether they paid close attention to the images or not. This suggests that ignoring stressful situations might not be helpful everyone.

In fact, there was some slight evidence that paying attention to the images actually helped high anxiety subjects control their runaway amygdala activity. Why’s that? Because if your amygdala is already set to fire, paying attention to the stressor actually gives you a greater sense of control, and calms the amygdala.

For everyone, the more you pay attention to things out of your control, the more out of control you feel. But for some people, their brains are constantly aware of all the things beyond their control anyway, whether they are consciously trying be aware or not. Izabella’s mom isn’t getting her anxiety from looking in the mirror. She’s feeling anxiety already, and then looking in the rear-view mirror to give herself some semblance of control.

So what can you do with this knowledge? Use it to understand what kind of brain you have, and what’s the best way for you to deal with uncertainty. If you can successfully ignore stressful situations by not paying attention, then by all means do it. If on the other hand, your brain is already on high alert, then you should seek to address the underlying anxiety, or minimize its effects. First, try to understand where your anxiety is coming from, or even simply acknowledge that you’re feeling anxious. Awareness of our own emotions actually decreases amygdala activity all on it’s own. Second, take a deep breath to ease the physical sensations of anxiety, taking advantage of biofeedback. Third, perhaps instead of ignoring things you can’t control, make a plan to deal with them. This actually helps the prefrontal cortex exert control over the amygdala. And there are many more suggestions that just can’t fit in this article.

To look or not to look in the rearview mirror, that is the question. Through a bit of introspection into how your own brain works, you can find the answer.


Bishop J, et al (2004) “State Anxiety Modulation of the Amygdala Response to Unattended Threat-Related Stimuli” Journal of Neuroscience, 24(46):10364 –10368

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