REWIRE YOUR ANXIOUS BRAIN II -What NOT to do
Updated: Sep 7, 2021
By Lauren Janowiecki | 1/21/19
Welcome back. Last week we went over the ‘whys’ behind our brand new mental health series, and began our first of many of our “Rewire your Anxious Brain” articles. And WOW- We had such a great response! In less than a week we had over 120 different views, tons of positive feedback, and a whole lot of questions. Thank you to everyone who took the time to read. If you were not able to read the first part of this article, go check it out – REWIRE YOUR ANXIOUS BRAIN.
To give you a quick overview- the blog post tapped into the science behind anxiety- the two different parts of the brain that are the centers for our two major anxiety responses. We discovered the Neocortex and the Amygdala. Today, I want to dig a little further into the Neocortex; I want to go over how it functions and how we can (and can not) alter that process.
As we discussed last time, the Neocortex or “the thinking brain” resides in the prefrontal cortex and is the center that allows you to think of and plan the future. It allows us to create different scenarios in order for us to make the best decision in a given circumstance. When the Neocortex is working properly, we can cognitively imagine the different results of a scenario, weight the risks of the different outcomes, and therefor make logical decisions. This part of the brain tends to compute using what I refer to as “learned statistical information”. Which means you rationalize using the information and experiences you have gathered over your lifetime and can therefor logically weigh the risks before making a decision.
For example, you may look outside and see that it is snowing. Your properly working prefrontal cortex will automatically start to run through the applicable and available facts, possible outcomes, and “learned statistics”. This thought process may happen in a rapid and very basic sequence such as this example below:
It is snowing.
The snow is not sticking.
The temperature is 32 degrees.
That is technically freezing.
But it is 11:30 am.
It gets warmer the later it goes into the afternoon.
The sun is shining.
The roads are black asphalt.
Black absorbs heat.
The sun will melt the snow on the black pavement.
If its already not sticking, then it likely wont freeze.
If it does freeze it most likely won’t be until it gets dark.
It should be safe enough to drive to the store for milk.
Its mostly highway anyway.
Highways are usually cleared quickly.
The snow is not sticking anyway.
I will be fine.
This is safe.
This is worth the risk.
This entire process may take seconds. Your mind is trained to take those momentary facts combined with current variables and learned statistics and apply them to your current situation. This allows you to logically answer the question- “is this safe?” or “is this worth the risk” in order to answer the overarching question- “should I do this?” A logical and properly working neocortex will take those variables and learned statistics and answer “yes, this safe.”
The anxious brain is wired a little bit different. For instance, an anxious Neocortex may experience the same exact variables, but their reasoning process may look something more like this:
It is snowing.
Snow is dangerous.
It could snow a lot.
The snow is not sticking.
But it could start sticking at any minute.
If it sticks it will be slippery.
That would be very dangerous.
I could get into a car accident.
I could slip and fall.
I could drop all of my groceries.
I could get hit by another car when I am picking the groceries up.
…But the roads are usually cleared pretty quickly.
But what if they are not?
I could slide into an intersection.
I could slide through a red light and get T- boned.
If I got hit I could get very hurt.
I couldn’t afford the medical bills.
What if I break my arm again.
The physical therapy took so long.
It was very painful.
And pain medications- they are so addictive
What if I got addicted to them?
I cant afford rehab.
What would happen to the kids?!
That was horrible.
That may happen again.
I cant go through that again.
…But the snow could melt…
But what if it doesn’t..
The car accident could be bad.
My car could be damaged
My car could even be totaled
Repairs are so expensive.
Do I even have GAP insurance?
What is my deductable?
Regardless, I have no extra cash this month
I am so broke…
How am I even going to pay my bills this month.
… its still snowing.
This is just too risky.
I will just stay home.
And so on.
In an anxious brain, the exact same previously accepted process has now become a complex and terrifying decision that led the person to stay home. Unlike the mere seconds this development took in a rational neocortex, in an anxious one, the same process could take minutes- sometimes even hours. And as simple as the above scenario seemed, this is how an anxious brain processes many of what others would consider “an easy decision”.
The anxious brain obsesses over potential outcomes- many that aren’t even based in logic. We have overactive imaginations which allow us to very easily string things together that are not even related, in order to come up with unrealistic outcomes. As you could see by the example above, the person started by worrying about something logical- like snow- and ended up worrying about extremely unrelated things like car insurance, rehab, being run over, and finances. We can take a very safe and easy decision and manage to complicate it to an irrational point. We can make even the most basic decisions, very difficult. And it doesn’t always happen during mandatory decision making- sometimes we obsess over possible decisions- ones that we don’t even have to make at that time. It is very easy to go down that unreasonable rabbit hole and get lost in the land of “what if’s”.
So- how can we change that? We will get there- I promise- just not in this article. (guys, bear with me- this is a lot of information) First, lets quickly understand how NOT to change that.
Lets go back to that little phrase I like to use called “learned statistics”. In a healthy Neocortex you rationalize using the information and experiences you have gathered over your lifetime and can logically weight the risks before making a decision. These “learned statistics” are also what make us learn from past mistakes in order to make better future decisions. The Neocortex lives right next to the frontal lobe – the memory storage center of the brain. This portion of the brain is also used for reasoning, thinking, decision making, and problem solving. These sections of the brain work together to use memories and logic to make decisions. This process combined with the current circumstantial variables assists your brain in making most decisions.
So, can we change our "learned statistics"?
No. We can not actively change what we remember or what we have learned. What I mean by this is that we can not intentionally forget what we use on a daily basis to help us make decisions. And it is not as simple as just replacing a “bad thought process” with a “good thought process” as other studies have suggested. The harder we try to ‘forget’ those naturally occurring thoughts and concerns, the more we are actually thinking about them. So, again, NO. We can not change our learned statistics.
I already know the arguments I am going to get in my inbox regarding all my big bold statements above.
“uh, Lauren… People block things out of their memory all the time” or
“You can train your brain to change almost anything- just look at all the evidence” or
“people replace bad thoughts with good thoughts all the time!”
Please bear with me and understand that I am not referring to suppressed memories or fleeting short term memories. I am not discussing to learned habits or “negative thoughts”. I am not even remotely touching on PTSD or neuro trama. And, I am not stating in absolutes-just in theory. I am by no means a psychologist or neurosurgeon and I will never pretend to fully understand the possibilities or the limits of the brain. I do believe in an amazing God and that ANYTHING is possible.
All that being said- I do not believe that you can intentionally forget the learned memories that cause the way your brain makes decisions, replace your thoughts, or- as I keep reiterating- change our learned statistics. BUT- we can rewire the way we process that exact same information, and therefor change the result or outcome.
Ok, so what exactly do I mean by this?
Let me show you- better yet- let me test you. It’s a super simple test- literally only three steps. Lets see how many of you pass.
1. Think of your favorite food. Mmmmm. Its SOOOOO delicious, right?
2. Now- stop liking it. Better yet, forget that you ever did like it. Like, you know that food exists, but you no longer feel any sort of way about it. Simple right? Just forget you liked it. No big deal.
3. Once you forget about your favorite food, replace it with sauerkraut. You now LOOOVE sauerkraut. I mean it is your absolute favorite food on earth… your mouth is watering just thinking about it.
So to recap- all you have to do is forget your favorite food and replace it with sauerkraut.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
So, if you passed, you now don’t remember what your old favorite food was, and you would give anything for a Rueben sandwich… right?
WRONG. You. Can. NOT.
No matter how hard you try you can not replace your favorite food with sauerkraut on demand! The brain simply does not operate that way! You are not going to change the fact that when you see snow your mind wanders to the possibility of financial crisis and certain death! That is just the way your brain operates- and that doesn’t mean your brain is wrong!
So now your thinking “great. Thanks Lauren. Now that all hope is lost, where exactly are you going to go from here?”
Don’t worry, we will get there- its just WAY too much information for one little baby article. I’m a blogger- not a full blown author haha. So stay tuned and know that it IS coming. And while you wait- don’t let your anxious brain stress over it 😉
In the mean time don’t neglect my other blogs- cheap, healthy, and easy family meal recipes, informative dental articles, and the daily in’s and out’s of the office. And don’t forget- you can always email your questions, comments, and concerns to me directly – firstname.lastname@example.org