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Start Worrying, Details to Follow

Updated: Jul 23, 2023

"My life has been full of great misfortunes, most of which has never happened."
Montaigne




My house can feel like a zoo at times. Three rambunctious kids running around and a barking white dog. Amongst the chaos, I recently discovered the pantry offers a minute or two of solitude. Last time, while seizing the moment, I saw a container of chocolate covered almonds. It was behind the brown wicker basket that was dumped on the floor subsequently spilling about 15 bags of fruit snacks.

Looking at these almonds, I was reminded of my amygdala. It looks just like one. In fact, "amygdala" means "almond." It is the brain's center for fear and anger and located deep in our skull. Once the amygdala is triggered, it produces a fast and subconscious reaction called, “fight, flight, or freeze." This response allows for the quick escape from danger before our conscious awareness.

For example, it is automatic to slam on the breaks to avoid a potential car crash. The amygdala has many routes that can set off the alarm. It can be from a visual threat, an ominous noise, or other concerning sensations. It also has incoming messages from the memory area of the brain which can produce an alarm as well.

The fight, flight, freeze system immediately activates a process that releases stress hormones. These include: norepinephrine, epinephrine, (otherwise known as adrenaline), and later on cortisol.

A different part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, deciphers if the fear is fiction or fact. It is located just behind our foreheads. The prefrontal cortex is unique to humans and a few other primates. It is the most evolved part of the mind and not fully developed until our mid-twenties. This structure allows us to problem solve and plan ahead. In the book Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents, Wilson & Lyons point out the prefrontal cortex can discern if the fear is real. We can then go about our activities and not let the alarm of our amygdala take over. Basically, the prefrontal cortex has the ability to tell the amygdala it is a false alarm.

The amygdala, which is so helpful for survival, has only one job. To remove self from danger. However, what if the danger does not actually exist in the present, but may exist in the future? The amygdala does not know the difference. This structure many animals share and is primitive. Your amygdala perceives fiction as fact and any fearful thought is a real threat. All it cares about is to survive. “Remove from danger." For example, if we are running late, our body may feel the same as if we are chased by a predator. Our heart rate and breathing increases and we hyper focus on the task at hand.



Bessel Van Der Kolk and John J Ratey point out the prefrontal cortex (logical brain) stops working correctly when there is amygdala activation. Essentially, the two structures act separate from each other and the amygdala’s highways are much faster than the prefrontal cortex for survival purposes. I do not want to think about why a predator is attacking me, I just want to flee!

When “flight” is triggered in fight, flight, or freeze there are moments we want to literally get away from the frustrating or scary situation. Since our prefrontal cortex is shut off or decreased, it is more difficult to remember this is our pre-programmed stress response.

Other trying days, there are moments we may shout. In this case, our mind is in “fight” mode of the flight, fight, or freeze response. Again, the prefrontal cortex is blocked and we may not remember this as the stress response.

There is a constant battle between our rational thought (prefrontal cortex) and emotional center (amygdala). In my child's four-year-old mind, he thinks the weather is related to an epic fight of some kind. If it is winter, the hot and cold battled and the cold won. If it is summer, the heat was victorious.

I like to use the analogy with our brains. During a stress or anxiety battle, will your prefrontal cortex or amygdala win? Will higher level thinking triumph over fear or anger? When you sit in a traffic jam, are you frustrated (amygdala win) or calm since you know you do not have control over it (prefrontal cortex win)? When your children are not listening for the 10th time, is your amygdala or prefrontal cortex running the show?

Tara Branch reminds us of an old tale of a mom who dispatches a telegraph to her child which states, “Start worrying, details to follow.” With this quote, Branch reminds us many times we can come up with our own worst case scenarios.

In Ron Siegel's Mindfulness Solution, he states that “worry” is always future tense. Despite dreadful situations, anxiety is in regards to upcoming events. Worry is not directed to the present moment. Typically, there is safety in the actual moment. It is the anticipation of what may happen that starts to get our amygdala triggered. It can be helpful to remind yourself this current moment in time is the only one that actually is in present reality.

In episode 1 of The Huberman Lab, Andrew Huberman compares random thoughts that arise with advertisements on your computer screen. We can allow them to come and go as opposed to more deliberate thoughts. Such as reading a book, going for a walk, or playing with your kids.

Thanks for taking the time to read! What are your thoughts? Let me know at: valerie.probstfeld@tomomistolove.com


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