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Karen's Blogs

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What Science Says about Anxiety

Unfortunately, many dysregulated eaters suffer from anxiety. When it muddles your thinking, your life (and those of people around you) is made harder. It can suck the pleasure out of everyday existence when it causes rumination, discomfort with uncertainty, social isolation, fears, and phobias. Patterns of anxiety begin in childhood and understanding the kind you have will help you recognize and manage it better.

According to Sujata Gupta in “Young and Anxious: Seeking ways to break the link between preschool worries and adult anxiety” (Science News, 4/27/19, pp. 18-23), preschoolers may have one or more of these anxiety types:

· Separation: beyond the second year of life, fear of being separated from caregivers

· Social: fears of being negatively judged in social situations

· Generalized: unwarranted excessive anxiety about the future

· Phobias: excessive fears of specific things such as snakes, water, germs, etc.

Then there’s how anxiety works in some teens and adults. “In scary or new situations, the amygdala [part of our limbic system], sends a fear signal to the prefrontal cortex. When things are working well, the prefrontal cortex [specifically the interior cingulate cortex or ACC] deciphers the situation and sends a message back to the amygdala” to chill. But in some people, when “the amygdala issues an alert…instead of identifying those negative thoughts as nonsense and communicating that to other parts of the prefrontal cortex, the ACC’s safety message is garbled and doesn’t get through. As a result, the amygdala keeps right on freaking out.” Sound familiar?

Randolph M. Nesse, MD explains this malfunction in his excellent book, Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychology (Dutton/Random House, NY 2019). He describes the problem as that your amygdala works similarly to your smoke alarm which goes off when you’re making bacon because its job is to warn and rouse you whenever it detects smoke or fire. In order to not grab your wallet and phone and go charging out of the house screaming “Fire,” you depend on your brain’s frontal lobes to asses what’s really going on so you can hustle over to the stove to deal with the scorched bacon. That’s how your amygdala and your higher order thinking work together.

Nesse recommends paying strict attention to signals in your brain to assess if they truly warrant an anxiety response. Based on his description above, I’ve begun encouraging clients to evaluate if they’re safe when they feel anxious (which they are almost all the

time) and, if so, to simply shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes and sigh, “Ah, bacon,” based on Nesse’s example. Saying the word “bacon” gives their brain the all clear signal and tells it to stop sending warnings to be afraid. So far, clients report this strategy works very well.

Best,

Karen

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