Imagine a piece of paper that is folded in half and then unfolded to expose a crease. Let’s use the folding action to represent a lived experience and the crease to represent a neural pathway in your brain that connects two neurons. Everyone’s brain creates neural pathways that serve to carry information from one neuron to another. As you experience life (the folding action), your brain learns and utilizes its neural pathways to form connections or pairings (the crease).Thus, your neurons become associated with each other. One thing leads you to think of or feel another thing. Now, imagine that piece of paper being folded again and again along the same crease. When the pairing is reinforced, the neural pathway strengthens.
One part of the brain that is particularly relevant to the experience of anxiety is the amygdala. The amygdala is a structure deep in the brain that acts as a sensitive alarm system. It alerts the rest of the brain when a threat is present and triggers a fear or anxiety response. Your amygdala learns how to function based on your lived experiences and on the basis of pairings.Further, your amygdala stores emotional memories and those emotional memories directly impact its functioning.
Let’s say, for example, a shy child experiences an unsuccessful attempt at making friends. This will inevitably produce unhappy feelings for the child and as a result, create a pairing between socializing and distressing emotions. A piece of paper is folded in half, creating a crease. That same shy child is unfortunate to experience several more unsuccessful attempts at socializing. That piece of paper is folded again and again along the same crease. Now, when that shy child is put in a social situation, their amygdala alarm goes off, giving warning to the experience of distressing emotions and triggering an anxiety response. In actuality, the social situation may be nonthreatening. However, in this example, the amygdala is functioning based on a well-established pairing.
The amygdala is amazing in that it can alert us to danger before we even completely know what the danger is. This has clear evolutionary purpose, but it also creates the environment for anxiety to thrive. Stress and anxiety have an important difference: stress usually occurs due to an external source and anxiety tends to be more of an internal response. So what happens when our internal response does not seem to match the external circumstances? Some researchers refer to this as having an overactive amygdala.
I happily report that there is a way to treat an overactive amygdala. First, I pose this question: which is easier – refolding a piece of paper along its initial crease or creating and folding the paper along a new crease? The first choice is easier. This helps explain why the shy child’s amygdala alarm went off, even in a nonthreatening situation. Yet, the human brain can create new neural pathways and form new connections. Refolding a piece of paper along its initial crease is easier, but creating and folding the paper along a new crease is possible. You can experience life in a different way and essentially rewire your brain. Then, the more you reinforce new pairings, the more you strengthen the neural pathway that connects them and the weaker the old neural pathway becomes. The shy child could be introduced to other shy children and experience different, more favorable reactions. As such, the shy child could begin to find social situations more and more enjoyable while feeling less and less social anxiety. As you fold and refold your piece of paper along a new crease, that new crease will strengthen while the old one weakens.