The Cure for Anxiety

Sadness. That is the cure for anxiety. But let me explain. Or you can read our book that devotes a whole chapter to the “cure for anxiety.” In this brief blog I will attempt to do several things:

  • Explain what anxiety is along with its cousins: worry, fretting, fear, and outright terror
  • Explain why anxiety is without a doubt one of the most resistant of all psychological difficulties people have, like depression, relationship problems, vocational problems, and general living problems.
  • Explain some of the underlying neurological functions that cause, create, and maintain anxiety once it gets into one’s psychological system

The neuropsychology

I distinguish the mind and the brain as I have explained in Mind over Matter blogs before. I use the term “mind” to describe our thinking, feeling, and acting. The brain is the machine the mind uses to do such things. There is great debate about this matter, however, with some very good neuropsychologists suggesting that the mind is the brain, while others, like myself, believe that there is an as yet undefined element in the human condition that we consider to be the operator of the brain. I’m afraid you’ll have to be content with the fact that we are all theorizing about how things work in the brain. But let me defer this discussion to previous blogs and other psychologists’ writings.

Aside from whether there is a real mind/brain difference, some things are quite well known. The brain (in my understanding) engages in only two operations that keep things going in the body: safety and pleasure. We discussed the pleasure side of the brain when we discussed “liking and wanting” as different operations of the brain, both related to pleasure. So this function of the brain seeks pleasure, mostly through chemicals, such as dopamine, and sometimes through electrical operations. The more important of the two things that the brain does, however, is safety. In other words, your brain works most diligently and constantly on keeping you alive. Central to this keeping you alive is the brain’s fantastic operation of keeping blood flowing in the body, originating in the heart and then to the rest of the body. Blood oxygenizes the body’s cells with blood and simultaneously cleanses these cells from material that needs to be dispenses. While the brain looks to pleasure when possible, something like 99% of the brain looks for safety. Our wonderful brain is doing this protection all the time, every second of our lives.

The brain is wonderful in protecting you and finding pleasure for you, these 100 neurons (brain cells) operating sometimes with trillions of connections to one another. But the brain is sort of stupid in anything else than pleasure and safety. For instance, the brain (again, not the mind) does not know what the mind knows, like love, trust, honesty, work, play, and the many other elements of character, relationships, and daily living. Importantly, the brain does not have an understanding of time. The brain does not know any difference between past, present, and future. In the brain, these three elements of time are all conceived as present. So when the brain senses that something might happen in the future, that future is right now or at best, a second or two in the future. This fact, namely that the brain doesn’t distinguish future from present is very important in the cause, maintenance, and ultimate cure for anxiety.

The brain’s resistance to threat

If you keep in mind that the brain is spending most of its time taking care of the body and protecting the body from harm, you get the picture as to why the brain needs to do this and how it does this. The brain (not the mind) has a startle reflex, for instance, that overrides anything else on your mind when you are started in some way, usually with a loud noise, but also sometimes by something visually that startles you, or perhaps even something that startles you in one of the other three senses (smell, taste, and touch). You don’t have to think, much less feel, when you touch a hot pan by accident while you’re cooking. You don’t have to think or feel when you see fire in that same kitchen. Your startle reaction operates in your olfactory lobe (smell) if you smell something odd in the kitchen. Startle reaction is just one of the ways the brain takes care of you by taking immediate action when the brain perceives something that is dangerous or could be dangerous because it is not within the norm of daily living.

The brain’s protective mechanism operates wonderfully all the time and keeps us alive. Unfortunately, this same protective mechanism also operates when there may not be any immediate or actual threat because the brain doesn’t distinguish a current threat from a future threat. When your brain senses some kind of threat, it goes into hyper drive in order to protect you from danger. This hyper drive comes in the forms of increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, increased breathing, and increased sensual awareness. Increased sensual awareness is in all five senses: sound, sight, smell, taste, and touch. In other words, when the brain senses some threat, it garners all the defenses: chemical, electrical, and sensual to protect you from this perceived threat. These increases are much like what it may have been like for primitive humankind to be faced with the sight of a lion coming over the hill: the brain sees the lion and immediately does the chemical and electrical changes in your body so that you can run. Hopefully, the brain churned up these defenses in time for you to protect yourself. If a lion were chasing you in the Serengeti, for instance, you would be experiencing a pretty high level of anxiety, like life-and-death anxiety. Thank you brain for keeping you aware of possible escape routes from the charging lion.

The cause of anxiety

Anxiety is devastating. It is a well-known fact that that many, if not most, visits to the ER have at least some anxiety driving these visits. Millions of people have thought they were having heart attacks, raced to the ER, and had all kinds of expensive tests, only to find out that there “was nothing wrong with them,” often to their great disappointment. Anxiety has many forms, including the rather popular current diagnoses of PTSD and OCD, but more often anxiety is what is called “free-floating.” In other words, people “just feel anxious for no apparent reason.” Well, there is a reason but it is not that they are having heart attacks or making this stuff up to get attention. Nor is it true that “nothing is wrong with them.” Something is “wrong,” but it has nothing to do with their bodies or minds. What is wrong is that their brains have somehow concluded that the lion is coming over the hill, or something equally dangerous. Why would the brain think such a thing? Most of us don’t roam the Serengeti and few of us have to contend with lions around. The brain should know that, so it seems. The brain does not know that. The brain thinks something very much like “the lion is coming over the hill, so you have to be hypervigilant.

How does this happen. How does the brain think something crazy like the lion is coming after you when there is no lion? It does so because the brain has heard a message from the mind that there is some immediate danger. So, the brain goes into its normal operation of increasing heartrate, blood flow, breathing, and hypervigilance to keep you hyperaware of your surroundings. Anxiety is essentially hyperawareness. Why?

The brain creates what we call anxiety for you to be hyperaware of your surroundings and “protect you from the lion coming over the hill.” The brain does not distinguish different kinds of dangers. The brain does not distinguish dangers: danger is danger, whether it is the spider or the lion. So anything that the brain determines is some kind of threat will start the chain reaction in the brain of upping the various elements of the body to protect you, primarily by making you hypervigilant.

Not only does not brain fail to distinguish kinds of threats, the brain does not distinguish the present from the future. And this the crux of the problem with anxiety. When you think of something aversive that might happen in the future, it is your mind that is doing this thinking, not your brain. Let’s say your boss has called a meeting with you on Monday morning but she didn’t tell you what she wanted to talk to you about. This kind of situation can cause “anxiety,” namely worrying about what your boss might say to you, or God forbid, that you might get demoted or fired. So it seems natural that you would worry about this future meeting. Unfortunately, your brain does not know any of this: it does not know that you work, it does not know you have a boss, it does not know about the meeting, and it does not know about the future. So, when you brain hears from your mind that you have a potential meeting that could be deleterious for you, your brain assumes “the lion is coming over hill,” and wants to send you into hyper drive.

Then, to make matters worse, your brain sort of “talks” back to your mind about this potential danger because the brain can’t think. It is the mind that thinks. The message from the mind to the brain started this cycle moving by telling the brain that there is some danger. You brain assumed this danger was immediate and started the hypervigilance, but it didn’t stop there. The brain then sent the mind the message that the mind needed to figure out what to do. Now we have this ongoing cycle with the mind telling the brain that there is danger and the brain talking back to the mind asking the mind to figure it out. So the mind tries to figure it out. How does the mind do that? By worrying about worst case scenarios like, “If he fires me, where will I get another job?” or “if he criticizes me for my performance, how can I defend myself” and the like. Of course this fretting does no good but, all the while the brain is sort of insisting that the mind come up with a solution to the problem it perceives as “the lion coming over the hill.”

Unless there is some way to stop this cycle of considering danger (the mind), reacting to danger (the brain), and then fretting (the mind again), anxiety will stay present and very possibly increase. If the brain determines that there is no immediate solution to what it perceives as the lion coming, it will do what it does: create more hypervigilance. How do we break this cycle?

The cure of anxiety

Read the first word again in this blog: sadness. The cure for anxiety is sadness, however odd that sounds. This is what I mean: you have to face the potential loss, feel this potential loss by feeling sad, and resolve this sadness. Easily said, not easily done. Anxiety in all its forms (fear, worry, fretting) keeps therapists busy trying to calm people down and physicians busy prescribing anxiolytics to treat the symptoms of anxiety. But neither really works to cure anxiety. There is no “settling down” someone who is in a state of anxiety because the brain perceives “the lion is coming over the hill.” You can’t talk to the brain about jobs, meetings, and the like, and you certainly can’t talk to the brain about the future because the brain, this wonderful machine, has no capacity to understand such things. You have to get the mind involved. You have to get the mind and the brain to work together the way these two elements work together 99% of the time. How do you do that?

You cure anxiety by considering the loss you might have, feeling sad about this potential loss, and allow this sadness to end. This is what you need to do: truly consider the worst case scenario. In our theoretical case, you need to consider that you would be fired. Then you have to feel sad about possibly being fired. This is what we call anticipatory sadness because you are anticipating some important loss in the future and allowing yourself to feel the sadness about this possible loss. It sounds crazy, I know, but this is the only way to cure anxiety, namely feeling sad in the present about something that might happen in the future. Note the tenses here: feeling sad in the present for something that might happen in the future. You can learn to do this with a little practice, but let me warn you, you don’t want to do it. You don’t want to feel sad about losing a job that is important to you; you don’t want to consider that your daughter with cancer might die; you don’t want to consider that your house will be robbed. And you don’t want to feel sad about these things because they haven’t happened. You know that they haven’t happened. But this “you” is your mind, not your brain. Your brain thinks that something really dangerous is happening and needs to be fixed. The only way out of the cycle of anxiety is to feel this anticipatory sadness. The sadness will end.

The interesting thing about sadness is that it always ends. Anxiety does not end. It can go on for years or a lifetime and get worse in the process. But if you lose something you love, you will feel sad for a period and eventually finish feeling sad. An even more devastating phenomenon that occurs with people is depression. Depression is the collections of many losses that have not been felt and finished, and have collected to such a degree that your brain shuts down interest in life in order to cope with the fact of these many losses.

So try it out. When you feel anxious about something, ask yourself the question, “What might I lose?” Then you will discover that you might lose something that is important to you, something that you love. Then allow yourself to feel the sadness you would feel if you would actually lose this something. Dare to feel this sadness now about what you might lose in the future. You will feel sad for a moment or two, maybe longer, but eventually, your anticipatory sadness will end.

Further Reading

Previous blogs on feelings

Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2017). The Positive Power of Sadness. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger

LeDoux, J. (2015). Anxious: using the brain to understand and treat fear and anxiety. New York: Viking Press.

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