The instinct that drives anxiety is the Fight or Flight response. I would differ with Walter Cannon here and call it the Fight or Flight REACTION, but he is unavailable for comment at the moment, as he named this phenomenon in the 1920’s. Since then, it has in fact been suggested that the name is not quite descriptive enough, and most recently it has been called “Freeze, Flight, Fight, Fright, Faint” by Bracha and his gang. To-maaa-to, To-mah-to.
The major players in the fight or flight instinct are shown here. There are actually two (ok probably more, but I’m a therapist not a neurologist) process happening simultaneously. One of these is totally and completely unconscious. We want it that way. We don’t want to have to THINK about whether or not it’s a good idea to move our hand if we accidently touch a hot stove. (“Hmmm . . . what’s that smell? And it kinda hurts . . . sizzling sound . . . probably should move my hand. . . ready set go!”) The reactive part of our brain takes over there, and we have a reflex reaction to jerk our hand back. This is a good thing. Information comes in through our 5 senses, and runs through the command center for survival, our mighty amygdala. Though tiny, this structure has a lot of power and primarily answers the question is “IS THIS GOING TO EAT ME OR NOT???” If the answer is no, the information flows smoothly through to be processed by our highly developed cerebral cortex. We think about it . . . we decide what to do with the information. If your amygdala decides that whatever it is evaluating poses some sort of a threat, it hits the big red panic button and triggers a complex chemical chain reaction throughout your body with the activation of the HPA (Hypothalmic, Pituitary, Adrenal) axis. Rapid fire, your body responds to the threat. We all know this feeling. Your heart races, your muscles tense, you breathe faster. Every single thing that happens in your body is oriented toward responding to that threat. We need to either get the heck out of there or be ready to defend ourselves.
At the same time, the incoming information is also being analyzed by other brain structures. The hippocampus is in charge of more rational responses, and can settle the amygdala down a bit. Here’s the interesting part. The amygdala response happens TEN TIMES faster than processing through the hippocampus.
The super in my office building gives me frequent opportunity to demonstrate this principle. I swear he wears crepe-soled shoes to sneak down the hallway for the sole purpose of watching me jump out of my skin when he says “BOO” or something similar. That’s the amygdala response. There is no recognition of WHO spoke, or that this is the same guy who regularly lets me in to my office when I forget my keys, simply a chemical reaction to an unexpected event. It doesn’t take long, of course for my hippocampus to put Charlie in context and realize that my life is not in immediate danger. As my heart rate returns to normal, we laugh about how easily startled I am, and get on about the business of living ... which is at that moment usually about me NOT resisting the urge to get a Diet Coke out of the vending machine. Oh that stuff is so bad for me.
What makes this problematic in today’s world is that the amygdala is a light switch. It’s off, or it’s on. There’s no in-between. From a survival perspective, it makes a heck of a lot more sense to overreact to a rustle in the bushes that turns out to be a bunny than to underreact to a rustle in the bushes that turns out to be a wolf. In our amygdala, there is only YES this is an immediate, life-threatening danger to which I must react or NO, it’s not. There is no maybe. Maybe is a yes, which explains why we experience the physiological fight or flight reaction in the face of things we clearly know are NOT life-threatening. We have a shortage of true, life-threatening dangers in today's world. When's the last time you ran into a lion in the elevator at work? Gee … it’s kind of like our Amygdala just takes over … and our brain is temporarily HIJACKED …..