By: Alain Langlais, Registered Professional Counsellor.
Have you ever felt something tickling the back of your neck and right away panicked at the thought of a spider or a giant scary bug having landed on you? To then realize that it was just a fly or someone teasing you with a feather or a simple stick. The instant reaction is because our instant response to a danger is insanely fast with minimum thought. We often react, then think and analyze.
It is important to understand that the mind is divided into parts that will sometimes conflict with each other. The deliberative part of the brain will react, calculate and consider evidence. The emotional part of the brain is fast, quickly acting on intuition and mostly automatic, and most of all, not very accessible to conscious awareness.
Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at NYU, framed this dual process as the low and high road. Threat is processed through two pathways. Our initial fear response is often not something that we deliberate. We feel it before we are fully aware of what that danger is or even whether there is a danger there. However, conscious control over emotions is weaker and emotions can flood consciousness. This explains why it is easier for emotional information to overwhelm our conscious thought than for us to gain conscious control over our emotions.
Evidence shows that individuals with relatively strong emotional system and weak inhibitory control are vulnerable for the development and maintenance of excessive worries especially around big decisions, life changes, new challenges, etc. Thus, sufficient levels of inhibitory control might have a protective function in reducing the risk for developing anxiety and fears. New studies have also shown that training attention away from threats, take the time to analyze the fear for what it really is to then often realize that, it is either a fake threat or a fake perception of fear from an old trigger. Training our mind to do so, can actually reduce symptoms and general anxiety disorder and the anxiety around the fear we are facing. People with better attentional control can disengage attention from threatening stimuli, and channel their thoughts in the direction they want and not dwell on threatening thoughts or experiences.
Registered Professional Counsellor