Those voices in your head

I see kids, tweens, teens, and adults in my practice at ANSCC concerning anxiety related disorders.  I explain to them about the many unusual ways that this thing called anxiety can present itself inside of us and get in the way of our daily lives. It can keep us from going to school or work. It can make us perform poorly on a test or on the job. It can make us afraid of the craziest things, like escalators, odd numbers, even pinecones. (Really, I’m not making that up.) There are so many different ways to be anxious that people are surprised when they hear that they have some sort of an anxiety related disorder. It can be obsessive-compulsive, or a fear or phobia or separation or social or test taking or your plain old generalized, nervous most-of-the-time kind of anxiety. It can last forever or it may just be temporary. If it’s in the gene pool (a family history), it may be your lifetime companion. Otherwise, it may just be a matter of time and circumstances.

Nevertheless, here are the three basic truths to understand about any kind of anxiety.
1. It is fear based. I am afraid of ______ (fill in the blank.)
2. It doesn’t have anything to do with who you are. It’s not your nature or your personality. It is just in the way of you being yourself.
3. You can control it.

Here is what I find to be one of the greatest tools that I use in therapy with people of any age. It’s word pictures or allegory. It s a universal tool that is used in many mediums such as comics, books, conversations, sermons, lectures and so on. It allows us to depart from pure science and absolute truth just to make a point that will provide a clear understanding and a permanent memory. So, word pictures are how I justify the creation of Amy G Dala and the Captain. These two characters can explain a lot about anxiety.

Very deep inside of our brains there is an area referred to as the limbic system. Within that system, there is a most powerful tiny object called the amygdala. By a most basic definition, it is an almond-shaped mass, associated with feelings of fear and aggression and it is important for visual learning and memory. Got that?  Probably not. Neither do most clients of any age.

Hence, from the brain’s amygdala we create Amy G Dala, a precocious, little person within all of us who is our hero when she is behaving, but our worst enemy when she is not.

Also within our brains, we have an area called the prefrontal cortex. If you just knock a few times on your forehead, it’s as if you just knocked on the captain’s door on a ship. This is who is in charge of steering and controlling this mighty vessel of the brain. If your captain has a well-trained and reliable crew, then you have a smooth-sailing ship. But it takes only one unreliable member of the crew to cause an attempted mutiny.

Enter Amy G Dala (amygdala). When faithful, she is a hero to us.  She is the ship’s smoke alarm, our warning system that remembers everything that has ever been harmful to us. She sounds the alarm when we are in any risk of harm or danger. Then the captain takes immediate and reasonable action to keep us on course. But if Amy G Dala is out of sorts or misbehaving, she will send out alarms of any level where no danger is present. Then, imagine our poor captain who is steering our ship with bad information. Very scary, right?  There you have it; we are feeling some level of fear, more accurately known as anxiety.

When Amy G Dala is at her best, our captain will think, feel and respond to most situations to keep us safe and on the right course.  If she is off her game, she will have our captain running for cover at her whim. Rather than being our bastion of truth and safety, she becomes our source of fear and lies. Here are some of the incredible lies I have heard her speak.

“It is never safe to cross a bridge.”
“I must never use a person’s name in a sentence.”
“I must always be home in my room by dark.”
“I just know something bad is going to happen.”
Amy G Dala is also the host carrier of a condition I call What-If-Fungus or WIF.
“What if I lose my job?”
“What if the teacher calls on me?”
“What if that tornado comes here?”

So we have this antagonistic Amy G Dala who distorts our thoughts and memories, disturbs our feelings, and throws our captain off course. Then she would have us think that it is personal, a part of our character traits or flaws.
This anxiety problem might be a fear or constant worry or obsession. No matter how Amy G Dala presents herself in your daily life, she is not a part of your personality.  She is a crewmember who is vital to the safety of the ship. She does not define your character, but when she is defiant, she can cause a horrible wreck.

The goal is not to be rid of Amy G Dala. That would be like removing the brake systems from our cars, turning off the alarms and removing the locks from the doors in our homes. She is essential to the crew. The goal is to manage her so she can be a good steward of her ship, and there are plenty of tools for the captain to maintain control of his own vessel.

The descriptions of those tools will take more space than is available here and now. So, contact me at A New Start Counseling Center, or go to the web site at newstartcounseling center. com. and e-mail us with your questions.   

Beyond medication, many behavior and brain-based interventions are very helpful, and I look forward to sharing them. However, the first and most important of all is this. Anxiety is not a personality trait. Nor should it define how you live your life. It is something that you learn to control, so you can be yourself and live your life.

(Analogy aside, not all anxiety problems are strictly about the amygdala. Other players in the brain contribute to the matter. But Amy G Dala is often a major player and she makes a great target.)

For more information, call A New Start Counseling at 770-461-9944 or visit newstartcounseling.com