A clue comes from understanding that anxiety is about the need to predict the future – and you only need to worry about the future when you begin to move; brains only evolved in lifeforms which move. Once lifeforms began to move they needed a brain to guide them as to where to go in order to meet basic needs – for food and safety and then later, as life evolved, needs for control and autonomy, respect and status, community, attention, emotional connection, privacy, achievement and meaning & purpose.
Thinking about the future might include: settling into new accommodation; finding your way around a new campus and town if you’re new to the area; building new relationships or reconnecting with people from the previous year; the uncertainty of finances and paying for food and the rent; planning how you’re going to fit in study and meet submission deadlines; and the future beyond study – travel, work and repaying student loans.
How you will meet these challenges may be uncertain – and therefore meeting emotional needs may become difficult. Whenever we are unsure about how an emotional need will be met in future – especially needs to feel safe and in control of our lives – anxiety arises, as the mind and body prepare us to take flight from danger.
The circuits in our brains which trigger feelings of anxiety, speeding our heart rate up and changing the rhythm of our breathing – as well as giving us the urge to empty our bowels! – are very ancient and evolved in earlier species before our capacity to think clearly did.
The amygdala, located in the brain’s ancient limbic system, triggers the physiological responses which we experience as emotion before we have time to think about it. At Suffolk Mind we refer to the amygdala as the security officer – its primary function is to keep us safe, but it can overact and ignore the positives in our lives if it sees a threat.
We might think that the part of our brain which evolved to plan ahead, identify goals and make decisions – the prefrontal cortex behind our forehead – would be able to put the brakes on to stop feelings of panic and stop us from overreacting when the security officer triggers strong emotional responses.
And sometimes this does happen – the rational part of the brain ‘reshapes’ emotional responses, reducing their intensity, impact or changing the meaning of an emotion, so that we take things less personally, allow for the possibility of change and so on.
Recent research, however, shows that intense experience of anxiety can result in the rational part of the brain being recruited to serve the security officer’s agenda – it stops being rational and starts to plan ahead for potential threats, which can make feelings of anxiety even more likely…so the rational brain ceases to be so helpful at constructive planning.
So what can we do to restore the balance and reduce feelings of anxiety? Let’s look at three points where we can intervene.
If anxiety arises in response to unmet emotional needs we can begin by identifying unmet needs and plan how to get them met. Perhaps we are missing key information; can we seek help from student support or buddy with somebody who may know their way around campus or a new town? Are there places we can go to meet new people if we are feeling isolated?
What if the prospect of speaking to people triggers the security officer’s anxiety response? One way to calm down this part of the brain is to change the pattern of our breathing; slow down the out-breath, counting to seven in your head while you breathe in and eleven when you count out and continue for as long as it takes. Alternatively, get moving – getting the heart and lungs working with a brisk walk or run burns off stress hormones and physical symptoms of anxiety.
How about reclaiming the rational brain from the security officer? Learning to spot black-and-white or either-or-thinking can be the first step. Record these thoughts in a journal and when you’re feeling calmer, analyse them by asking what the evidence is for these kinds of thoughts until it becomes second nature.
You can also seek advice from your GP, the Suffolk Wellbeing Service or by calling Suffolk Mind on 0300 111 6000 or visiting their website suffolkmind.org.uk.