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3 Reasons Why Trying to Think Your Way Out of Anxiety Doesn't Work

Have you ever tried to convince yourself that you shouldn’t be anxious? That what you are worried about is not logical? How well did it work? For most of us, it is difficult – or even impossible – to think clearly and rationally once we start spiraling down the anxiety rabbit hole. To understand why, it helps to know a bit about the neurobiology of anxiety.  

 Fear is the automatic reaction to an imminent threat or danger. When a threat is detected, the body’s automatic survival response is activated. When the danger has passed, the fear response naturally calms down.

One of the things that differentiates humans from other species is our ability to imagine what will happen in the future. But that amazing capacity can also get us into trouble when we anticipate what could go wrong.

 Unlike the fear response, which calms when we are out of danger, there is no end to the number of things we can think might happen in the future. If what we are afraid of or worried about is anticipated (an upcoming presentation or social event), imagined (if I am not perfect, they will find out I am a fraud), or has no definite endpoint (a pandemic), anxiety can take us down a rabbit hole of disaster thinking and what-if scenarios, decreasing our ability to accurately assess what is happening right now or what most likely will happen in the future. 

When we experience anxiety, we are often acutely aware of our worried or fearful thoughts. Since it seems that the problem is our thoughts, we assume we should be able to use logic and reason to convince ourselves that we shouldn’t be anxious. Unfortunately, that often doesn’t work for some very predictable reasons. 

1. Your survival response is stronger than logic

The amygdala is part of the limbic system, a set of structures in the middle of the brain that have to do with memory and emotional processing. The amygdala operates below the level of conscious awareness and one of its jobs is to scan the environment for threats – physical or emotional.

When we perceive a threat, the limbic system and brain stem work together to activate our instinctive “fight-or-flight” survival response to get us out of danger. Heart rate increases. Muscles get tense. Eyes widen. Our perception narrows to focus our attention on what we need to do to survive. All of this happens automatically, often before we are even conscious of what is happening.

 Imagine that you are walking in the woods and you see a squiggly thing lying across the path in front of you. What happens? For many people, the brain says “Snake!” and activates the fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline is released, your heart beats faster, you suck in your breath, your muscles tense and you take a step backwards. 

This automatic fear response causes us to act first and ask questions later. Why? Because if you have to respond to a real threat, you need to be acting automatically and instinctively to get out of danger (fast track), not thinking about a solution (slow track). To ensure that your instinctive survival mechanisms can work to get you out of danger as quickly as possible, the flow of information to the parts of the brain responsible for logic and reason (the cortex) is inhibited. Once the snake is gone, or we realize it wasn’t a snake at all, the fear response subsides.

The fight-or-flight response is also activated when we feel emotionally threatened, or when we become fearful about all the things that could go wrong in the future. But with so many things in our world to feel anxious about and so many things that feel out of our control, we never get a signal that the danger has passed and our nervous systems stay on high alert. Without a way to calm the limbic system and bring our thinking brains back on line, our ability to think clearly and rationally is hijacked and the fight-or-flight survival response will win out every time.

2. An anxious brain perceives things as more threatening than they really are.

When the fight-or-flight response is activated, our brains are wired to be attuned to more danger and our threat-detection system is heightened. If we are walking through the jungle and a predator appears, our brains need to be alert to the other dangers, like the possibility of another predator.

Without the brakes on the system, the fight-or-flight response can get out of control. Even something trivial like leaving our grocery list at home can feel like a life-or-death situation and no amount of logic and reason can convince us otherwise.

In a situation where we are really in danger, overestimating threats is a good thing. But the same thing can happen when we get anxious about an upcoming presentation or social situation. Anxiety about saying something stupid in public or not doing a good job on a work project can trigger our fears of rejection, safety, and security that feel every bit as threatening as a threat to our physical safety. In a less anxious moment, the fears might seem ridiculous and even silly, but the more anxious we become, the more disastrous the outcomes can seem – creating even more anxiety. 

This anxiety loop can draw us into a spiral of worst-case scenario thinking. Part of the job of the cortex is to act as the brakes on the system – managing the parts of the brain that are reacting to the threat. It is as if there is a smoke alarm going off in the brain. The job of the cortex is to say, “Okay, the alarm is going off, but is the house on fire or is it just a piece of toast burning in the toaster?” With the information flow to the cortex inhibited, we can’t really tell. 

3. The higher the anxiety, the fewer options we can see

 The fear response is designed to get our attention. It is also gives us “tunnel vision,” limiting our ability to rationally assess what is happening, make decisions, or come up with creative solutions. The higher the anxiety, the more convinced we become that this is the only way to perceive the situation. We believe it is true because it feels absolutely true.

When we are confronted with a physical threat, this makes sense. We need to be focused on one thing and one thing only – survival. But this tendency doesn’t work in our favor when we are anxious about something we imagine might happen in the future. 

The more anxious we are about a situation, the more convinced we become that a bad outcome is the only one possible. It actually limits our ability to think clearly, making the outcome we are dreading more likely to happen. 

A high anxiety state also limits our ability to connect with others, shutting us off from the very support that can help to restore balance to our systems. It makes us feel alone and isolated, which only exacerbates the anxiety.

So… if trying to convince yourself that you shouldn’t be anxious doesn’t work, what can you do?

In my experience, the most effective first step in working with anxiety is calming the body. Why? Because until you calm the body’s fight-or-flight response and bring your thinking brain back online, you won’t be able to think clearly or assess your situation accurately. 

Interested in learnig how to use this brain-focused approach to interrupt and repattern anxiety and build healthier pathways of emotional response? Check out some of my other blog posts or contact me to find out about becoming a coaching client or getting on the mailing list for the next  Regulate, Rewire, and Thrive Bootcamp.