The Neuroscience of Anxiety:
Lions, Tigers, & Airplanes
Learn how an understanding of the neurobiology of anxiety can set you free.
Published in Psychology Today
Matthew MacKinnon MD
For the purposes of today’s discussion, you will be afflicted with a dire case of aerophobia (fear of flying) for the next fifteen minutes.
A few months ago you booked a flight to that tropical getaway you’ve always dreamt about. Now the day of your trip has arrived and you are boarding your plane.
Your breath issues forth in smoke-like clouds made substantial by the crisp morning air and you daydream about lying on a warm beach. As you climb aboard the airplane your brain suddenly changes the channel and the image of the idyllic beach is overcome by an acute awareness of just how narrow the aisles are and the staleness of the cabin’s recycled air.
As you make your way to your seat you feel less like a passenger and more like a condemned man shuffling to the executioner’s scaffold. Beads of sweat collect above your eyebrows and you become keenly aware of the sensation of your heart as it does the rhumba in your chest.
By the time you find your seat and jam your over-packed bag into the under-appropriated headspace your breath is coming in short and rapid starts.
Let’s pause here to map the neurology of your iatrogenic panic attack.
First, the raw stimuli of the airplane arrive at a part of the brain known as the amygdala. Planes have long ago been associated with fear for you so upon stepping into the stimulus-rich environment of the metallic bird the amygdala flips through its panic rolodex, shrieking in fear as it finds the card marked: “Airplane = Danger!”
The amygdala passes along the danger signal to the hypothalamus, who, as dictator of the body’s autonomic nervous system, trips the fight-or-flight wire. The body’s sympathetic nervous system (SNS) steps on the metaphorical gas and your heart rate increases, your blood pressure rises, and your imaginary weatherman predicts perspiration with a good chance of flop sweat.
The physiological components of your anxiety attack are now now in full force and your brain begins to receive feedback from the southern territories regarding the bodily results of the SNS/”Gas” activation. The thalamus is the part of the brain that receives sensory information from your body, informing the rest of your brain about the thumping of your heart, the choking sensation of hyperventilation, and the slightly slippery texture of your skin.
Unfortunately, the information provided by the thalamus regarding the panic signals from the body only spurs on the anxious cycle kicked off by the danger signals from the amygdala. The brain reasons that your heart must be pounding for a reason and since fight-or-flight rarely connoted a pleasant experience in the primordial history of our evolutionary brain, the brain fans the amygdala-sparked flames of panic.
Now that I’ve given you an anxiety attack let’s insert mindful breathing and some good old-fashioned reality-testing so that you can enjoy your flight and relish your vacation.
Source: Matthew Williams, MD/MindfulnessMD.com
As you sit and draw your attention to your breath your muscles relax. Your breath becomes elongated and you emphasize your exhalation. As we discussed in a previous article your deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), or the body’s “brake” as I have referred to it as. The PSNS/”Brake” slows your racing heart and your breathing begins to take on a relaxed rhythm.
As before, the sensory signals from your body filter up through the thalamus to the rest of your brain, but this time they indicate a calm bodily state. Again, your brain reasons that the physiological calm must correlate with a safe environment (don’t try this in the proximity of a lion, tiger, or bear) and informs the amygdala that it can relax.
After you have calmed the fire of panic your rational dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is able to communicate the message previously drowned out by the cacophony of your panic circuit: planes are safe. In fact, your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex adds, per year you are about 1,500 times more likely to die in a car crash than in a plane crash (1).
The rationality-PSNS/”Brake” cocktail works quickly and your amygdala sheepishly stows away its panic rolodex…”
1. Williams, M. (2014). Risk Perception: From Ebola to Airplanes. Retrieved from https://www.mindfulnessmd.com/2014/10/25/risk-perception-from-ebola-to-airplanes/