Anxiety Hijack

Why calming down is hard

October 12, 2021

anxiety hijack

Anxiety can be powerful. Whether triggered by something specific, or seeming to just exist on its own, anxiety impacts the brain and body in a variety of ways. There’s what anxiety feels like and does to us on a more surface level – sweaty palms, flushed face, perseverating thoughts and assuming the worst. There’s also what anxiety does to us internally, and an entire web of systems and processes within the body that drive everyday actions.

There’s a reason why anxiety can be powerful enough to hijack our thoughts and actions. It has to do with an instinctual response system built around our need to survive. This is a system that bypasses rational thought and choice. It is the reason why we can talk about emotions and coping skills when calm, yet still find ourselves incapable of accessing that information in the moments when it’s needed most. Understanding this system can help provide a clearer path for approaching anxiety management in an effective way.

Cognitive Brain versus Emotional Brain
Thinking about physiological systems in terms of their “cognitive” and “emotional” functions is a simple way to break down this phenomenon of the anxiety hijack. The “cognitive brain” is largely made up of the prefrontal cortex. This is the area responsible for tasks like clear thinking, decision making, impulse control, and predicting consequences. It’s the part of the brain that lights up when we sit in a therapy session, talk about emotions and behaviors, think about triggers for anxiety, and recognize the importance of calming strategies like deep breathing. The cognitive brain does its best work when we feel calm.

The “emotional brain” functions differently. Although made up of just a few small structures buried deep inside the brain (the amygdala and hippocampus), it acts as a watch tower and control center for the entire body. When the emotional brain perceives a threat of any kind, it jumps into gear. By activating a series of bodily systems, it prepares us to respond to the threat at hand. Heart rate increases, breathing becomes shallow, and more oxygen is delivered to the muscles in preparation for movement.

This preparation comes with a tradeoff, however, as there are certain systems and functions that would inevitably slow us down in moments when quick action is required. The main and most frustrating tradeoff when it comes to anxiety – the cognitive brain goes offline.

“I know why I feel anxious, I know what anxiety feels like in my body, so why do I feel so powerless to stop this from happening?”

By asserting its control over the brain and body in situations of perceived threat, the emotional brain is successful in protecting us. This reaction is what many call, “fight, flight or freeze,” and which path the body takes largely depends on the person. On top of this instinctual response to perceived threats, learned and practiced behaviors add additional strength to the mix. What that means is that, the more the emotional brain activates and takes full control, the better it gets at activating and taking full control.

Undoing the Hijack
Understanding this relationship between the cognitive and emotional systems in the brain provides validation for those who struggle to control their anxiety while also outlining the alternative path.

If the emotional brain’s immediate control over us becomes stronger the more it activates in one direction, activating it in the other direction can do just the opposite.

For many people who struggle with anxiety, retraining the brain could be the answer. This process includes repeatedly practicing calming strategies in the earliest moments of anxiety.

Biofeedback is an effective tool for this, allowing the person a view into their emotional brain by monitoring their heart rate. Upon the heart rate rising, the participant can engage in a calming strategy to lower their heart rate. Over time and with continued practice, this process of bringing the heart rate down resets the balance between the cognitive and emotional brains. The end results are more automatic calming abilities, and a cognitive brain that stays online and can make rational decisions despite feeling threatened.

Anxiety is a useful and valuable emotion. It has a purpose and a job to do. Oftentimes it’s important to listen to our anxiety and what it’s telling us about a situation, or even what it’s telling us about ourselves. But for many people, anxiety has a lot of downsides, too. Its overpowering nature eats away at the ability to choose how to present one’s self and experience life. Biofeedback and similar regulation training strategies offer hope for undoing the hijack and taking back control.