Thinking Brain, Feeling Brain

One of the concepts I have found super helpful, for both people struggling with anxiety disorders as well as their loved ones, is the idea that we each have a feeling brain and a thinking brain. These two “parts” of our brains are both essential to our lives. Our thinking brain helps us solve problems and plan for the future. Our feeling brain helps warn us of danger (by making us feel anxious and fearful), provides us with positive emotions that motivate us (by making us feel happy), and drives us to help others who are suffering (by making us feel sad). Problems can arise, however, because the feeling brain and the thinking brain don’t always play nicely together. When one part of our brain is activated, it often means the other part is taking a break. People who are suffering with an anxiety disorder know this all too well. When your anxiety disorder gets “triggered” by something – being in a social situation, or having to use a public bathroom, or feeling a strange physical symptom in your body – your feeling brain is trying to take control of the situation. And if it’s a particularly bad trigger, your feeling brain can go into overdrive. Children can have “meltdowns.” And adults can have meltdowns of their own (although grown-up tantrums tend to involve lashing out with words rather than kicking and screaming). The thing to remember is that when the feeling brain is in charge, it can be extremely difficult to think clearly. And those important functions that your thinking brain controls – the problem solving and the planning – they probably won’t be accessible to you for a while. And that’s totally okay, and it doesn’t mean you’re a basketcase or anything. It just means you’re human.

If you are an anxiety sufferer, here are some tips to remember…

1. Find your coping skills. You will inevitably be overwhelmed at times. Just remember in these moments that your feeling brain has taken charge. Don’t keep trying to have the conversation or the argument you’re having. Don’t keep working on your homework if it’s making your anxiety worse. Don’t try and figure anything out. Don’t continue to post on social media. Instead, find a coping skill (do one of those cool adult coloring books, play a video game on your phone, or take the dog for a walk) and focus on the skill until you can get your feelings back to a manageable level. Then you can return to whatever it was you were working on.

2. Get to know your triggers. Gradual exposure to your triggers is going to be an important part of overcoming your anxiety. But it has to come in manageable doses. You may have to temporarily restructure your life to make sure you’re not being constantly overwhelmed. You may need to talk with your loved ones about making changes at home so life is more manageable. And if your loved ones can’t handle having these conversations with you, you may need to find a way to incorporate a family session into your treatment. It’s important that you create a life situation that will be conducive to gradually facing your fears and getting your life back from anxiety.

If you are someone living with an anxiety sufferer, here are some things to keep in mind…

1. Pay attention to the warning signs of your loved one. What do they look like when they’re anxious? How do they behave? When your loved one is highly triggered, keep in mind that they don’t have access to their thinking brain. This is not the time to figure out the problem, or develop a plan, or try to get them to change something about themselves, The only thing you have to worry about in this instance is gettting the emotions back down to manageable levels. There will be time to process what happened and develop a plan of action at a later time when your loved one is feeling more calm.

2. Don’t take anything that your loved one says during a “meltdown” personally. When someone is triggered they are not thinking clearly. They may even see you as a threat in those moments. Remind yourself that this is the anxiety talking. Not the person.

Preventing the feeling brain from becoming overwhelmed is an essential part of successful treatment. Following the basic steps above will have you ready for the next step; facing your fears in small, manageable steps.