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Anxiety - A Neurochemical Feedback Loop

If you struggle with anxiety, you are not alone. Many of us get stuck in fearful and negative thought loops and can spiral down the rabbit hole of what-if scenarios and catastrophe thinking. It feels terrible, but the truth is, this process is actually the result of a powerful neurochemical doing its best to keep you safe from harm and pain.

Making you feel terrible is one of the best ways to get your attention

The power of cortisol

Cortisol is a neurotransmitter that directs us to meet an immediate survival need like hunger, thirst, escaping a predator, or avoiding rejection from the tribe.  

When our brains perceive a threat – physical or emotional, real or imagined - it is cortisol that focuses our attention on possible survival strategies and on other possible threats, prepares our bodies to take action, and makes connections in the brain to ensure we will remember this threat in the future.

The amygdala is a structure in the middle of the brain. One of its jobs is to operate below the level of conscious awareness to detect threats in your environment, like the smoke detector in your home. 

When it detects something that it perceives as a threat, your brain sounds an alarm and releases cortisol. You become hyper-focused on the perceived threat, your muscles get tense, and your heart rate increases, preparing your body to take action. 

All of this happens instantly and automatically, often before your logical brain even recognizes that something is wrong.

Cortisol is supposed to be a short-term response

Let’s say you are crossing the street when you notice a car speeding down the street. The cycle might look like this:

  • Brain detects a threat (a car looks like it won’t stop when you are crossing the street) and releases cortisol
  • Cortisol tells our body to take action, be alert for other threats (Are there other speeding cars?), and look for possible escape routes (stop and go back or run across the street?)
  • When the threat is gone (we get back to the curb safely), cortisol drops, and our bodies return to baseline

This instant and unconscious reaction is a normal and healthy response to a threat or potential threat. It is meant to be a short-term response that resolves when the danger has passed. 

It is an elegant and powerful system that ensures the survival of the species, not just in humans, but in all mammals.

Cortisol helps us remember a threat

In addition to signaling us to take action, cortisol also makes connections between all of the neurons that are firing at the moment the cortisol is released. These connections form pathways in the brain – neural pathways – that make it easier to remember things and to go down that path in the future. If the sound of a branch breaking happened at the same time your brain detected the presence of the predator, cortisol would help wire these things together so that when you hear a branch breaking in the future your brain would alert you to a possible predator nearby.

Again, this is a normal and healthy response to ensure the survival of the species and it happens in all mammals.

You can get stuck in a cortisol loop

But what happens in anxiety? How does this healthy reaction turn into an unhealthy default response to even the slightest threat – real or imagined? And why is it that humans go down this anxiety rabbit hole of anticipating the worst possible outcome but giraffes and zebras do not?

The answer lies in three uniquely human traits:

  • Our capacity for imagination
  • Our ability to make predictions
  • Our instinctive need to create a narrative to explain why we are feeling what we are feeling.

Let’s look at a different example. This time it is an interaction at work. Here is how the loop might go:

  •  Brain detects a threat (a look of displeasure on a supervisor's face)
  • The brain "remembers" that a look of displeasure from a parent meant losing privileges for breaking a rule. (Cortisol wires in the distressing event so it is easier to respond to it in the future)
  • The brain interprets a look of displeasure as” I am about to get into trouble” (emotional threat), and releases cortisol, creating a feeling of unease, dread, or defensiveness.
  • The brain creates a story to explain the feeling (I must have screwed up on the project), more cortisol is released. We imagine all of the bad outcomes that could happen. More cortisol gets released making the outcomes feel more real and dire.

And down the rabbit hole we go, even though we might know we are not being rational or are blowing things out of proportion. 

We might even know in some part of our brain that the look of displeasure might have nothing to do with us, but our overenthusiastic survival response has already hijacked the system, making it hard to think clearly and objectively

What happened here? For one thing, because there is no end to the number of bad outcomes we can imagine, there is never an end to the threat like there is with the car that looks like it won’t stop. 

For another, our emotional survival response is stronger and faster than logic and rational thought and it will win out every time. So, no matter how much you try to think and reason your way out of anxiety, it often will not work.

This is a feature not a bug. The emotional response is meant to be stronger and faster because in the face of immediate threat, you want to act instinctively (fast track), not trying to analyze and plan a response (slow track). 

The problem is that this fight-or-flight response can cause us to say and do things in the moment that we regret later on, making the spiral down the cortisol rabbit hole even worse.

What is the solution?

Because anxiety has a lot of unhelpful thoughts and narratives that go along with it, we often believe that if we understand our anxiety well enough or use positive thinking to counteract our negative thoughts and narratives, the anxiety will go away.

The problem, though, is that anxiety is a nervous system response to a perceived threat – real or imagined. And a nervous system response often needs a nervous system intervention in addition to the understanding and analysis.

You need to learn to interrupt and repattern your anxiety/cortisol response. The good news is that all the developments in the field of neuroscience over the past few decades have given us the understanding and tools to do just that.

One of my favorite strategies to quickly shift my brain chemistry is the Superhero Pose, also known as the Power Pose.

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, hands on your hips, shoulders back, and chin up. Hold this pose for 2-3minutes. Research shows it increases testosterone, lowers cortisol, and boost levels of the feel-good neurochemical dopamine. Try it when you want a fast way to interrupt a cortisol feedback loop.

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Related blog posts: 

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

Overcoming Your Brain’s Negativity Bias