This doesn't take a brain surgeon

By Anne Marie Cook
Special to The Citizen

In a previous article, “Those Voices In Your Head,” which appeared in The Citizen on Mar. 24, I was using allegory or word pictures to make some basic points about the common but complicated condition of anxiety. I was explaining about where it can originate in the brain. I transformed a difficult brain word, the amygdala into the more memorable Amy G Dala.  She really is worth getting to know because her presence in all of us can really mess with our heads. Pun intended. My goal is to prove that it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out how we tic.

This precocious Amy G Dala is a very small but mighty memory keeper deep within the brain. How is this for a lousy job? She is the recorder of all the bad stuff that happens to us. All of those fond memories get to go somewhere else. But why would we need such a thing? Because hapless little Amy G Dala will remind us of the painful mistakes we have made in the past, so that we are not destined to repeat them.  Maybe you put your hand on a hot stove…once. Maybe you stuck a knife in an electrical socket one time…and lived. Maybe you put laundry detergent in the dishwasher or a softball in the microwave. These are the kinds of things we don’t do twice because Amy G Dala is on the job.

On the flip side, what if our painful or deeply consequential memory is not about what we did? What if it’s about something that happened to us or around us? Maybe there was an accident, a fire, or an illness. Maybe we witnessed something very distressing. Maybe there was a traumatic time in our lives that lasted too long. What does Amy G Dala do with that? Well, she remembers. Then, forevermore if something similar crosses our path, she sounds the alarm.
Now let’s take a look at the volume on the alarm. Amy G Dala can whisper. She can talk, and she can scream. This is where it gets tricky. At her best, she will whisper or talk softly. Hopefully we hear that little voice in our head and take an appropriate action.

But, what if that memory cuts too deep? Maybe it was unbelievably bad or it went on too long. Well, there can be a correlation between the depth of the memory and the volume of the alarm. Depending on the power of that memory, Amy G Dala may have problems managing it. Here’s what that could look like on the surface:  a problem with startle reflex or even panic attacks; bad dreams or flashbacks. On the other hand, people may make daily or even lifetime decisions based on buried, but troubling memories and not even realize the connection.  And yes, such memories can distort reality.

How many young adults have I seen in counseling who insist they will never marry because of what they witnessed in their parents’ relationship? I’m still counting. How about a mother who won’t let her children in any swimming pool because of her memory of a childhood drowning. And I won’t even go into my own personal fear of mold. No, not going to go there.

Now, what if there is no bad memory, no past trauma, and no skeletons in the closet? This can and does happen very often. In this case, Amy G Dala becomes the rebel without a cause. She is simply firing at anything that moves, creating a general sense of turmoil.  There may be a family history of anxiety. So, ask your grandmother who to thank for your faulty brain circuitry.

The point is that sometimes Amy G Dala just beeps sporadically like a smoke alarm that needs a battery change. Sometimes she’s like a defibrillator implant. (That hurts.) For some of us, she’s a constant buzzing somewhere inside of us that creates a low grade but relentless sense of dread or worry.
These are all different degrees of anxiety from mild to intolerable.  We have to decide individually if we see a problem and to what degree. Then we can consider the options to deal with it. A medical doctor can help with a diagnosis and can discuss medication treatment. If that’s not a first choice, here are some other things to consider.

Essentially, much of the brain operates like a plane on automatic pilot. Amy G Dala is supposed to be in that category. She should just be sending up the occasional smoke signal at the first sign of trouble. If she’s misbehaving, then it’s time to move her to manual control because if left unchecked, she robs the thinking part of our brain from taking action. Excessive worry or anxiety will overtake logic and reason. That translates into a person who is out of control.

Here are a few ways to manage an anxious moment. The first is to yawn and stretch. Yawning cools down brain temperature. Stretching results in relaxing the muscles. Or you can simply breathe in through your nose until you can’t hold any more air. Do it slowly. Then breathe out through your mouth slowly. Do it until you feel like stopping or people start staring. Actually, if you happen to have a big balloon in your pocket, blow it up, let it go and chase it a few times. This really helps.  I’m serious.

These exercises can cool you down enough to regain some composure. However, cases that are more complicated will take more sophisticated treatment.  At our center  there are several therapists who specialize in different approaches such as Cognitive-Behavioral, EMDR, Neurofeedback Therapy and more.

If you call A New Start, there is a great staff to answer questions for you.           Anne Marie Cook, LPC:  770-461-9944