The brain takes care of so many important tasks, it stays quite busy whether we pay attention or not. Considering how busy it is and how fast it processes a constant stream of data, it is only natural that sometimes it will make errors. It happens to all of us. We jump to a conclusion, get startled when we see something benign from the corner of our eye, or get very anxious, even panicked, when there is no threat to our safety.
This post focuses on that overwhelming sense of fear and urgency that seems to come out of no where, even though rationally we know there is no “reason” to be anxious. The parts of the brain that are responsible for detecting danger are not rational parts. They don’t even touch the rational prefrontal cortex. Since safety is its job, it has to work very fast, there is no time to seek extra information to rule out alternatives causes for what triggered our anxiety. Speed can be a truly good thing. If a building is on fire, we need to get out as fast as possible, not sit down and map out a decision making flow chart.
Here is a metaphor to explain what is happening in your brain during those unsettling moments. Your amygdala works like the smoke detector in your kitchen. When it detects danger it screams so loud that your hippocampus cannot do its data management job, processing new information, organizing, and retrieving memories. The hippocampus starts getting sloppy, can’t find what it needs, and mixes new memory files up. When the danger is pasts, the alarm stops, and hippocampus settles down and hopefully resumes normal functioning. Of course, mistakes it make while the alarm was on still exist and may need to be cleaned up later. One of the functions of psychotherapy and Somatic Experiencing is cleaning up those disorganized files.
Back to the smoke detector metaphor. For some people, their smoke detector goes off fairly rarely and usually only when danger is present. And they may bounce back pretty quickly. But for others, we get many false alarms, and are therefore anxiety much too frequently. Imagine your smoke detector is installed directly over that old toaster with too many crumbs burned to the bottom. Whenever you use that toaster, even though there is no fire, the smoke alarm screams so loud it can’t be ignored, scaring everyone in the house. Yet, when you clearly see that ITS JUST THE TOASTER and not real danger, you are able to take reset the smoke detector and restore peace and quiet right away. Then maybe even enjoy your breakfast.
My point is to introduce a neuroscience informed affirmation, a mantra that can help you restore peace during your own false alarms. This means taking a moment to step out of the chaos of reacting to the false alarm, seeing when there is no actual threat to you or your loved ones safety, and sighing a deep relief, “Its just the toaster.”