Chronic Anxiety and the Lizard Brain

Chronic Anxiety and the Lizard Brain

We began our first post in our Anxiety series asking, "is being anxious always a bad thing?” Anxiety is certainly frequently being written about and discussed in our culture these days. We learned that this thing called "anxiety" actually falls into two categories: chronic and acute. We discussed how acute anxiety is more often generated by an event and is of a transient state, typically having a beginning and an end.

Chronic anxiety is always with us. Anxiety is not, in and of itself, either good or bad. It is a largely an unconscious state of mind that has its origin in the oldest part of the brain, sometimes called our "Lizard Brain."

It's the primitive brain's attempt to be on constant alert and working to keep us safe from threats. The very nature of it being a largely unconscious function is why we feel a persistent state of anxiety.

Here's the good news: our brain has evolved, developing in evolutionary terms the newest part of the brain, sometimes called the “Executive Brain.” If the lizard brain (actually the Amygdala) is always on unconscious alert for threats, our executive brain (actually the Prefrontal Cortex) is now able to evaluate what's a threat and what isn't. In other words, we now have a choice of how to react to these perceived threats. Here's the trick though: we have to use our executive brain to go from unconscious to conscious awareness. When you are aware of your lizard brain telling you most things are a threat, you can engage your executive brain to decide what really is or is not threatening. In Resilient Leadership terms, we can choose our responses throughout the day rather than unconsciously reacting to things happening to us. How freeing this awareness, this ability to choose, is!

We have the ability to choose our response to anxiety.

How do we learn to do that? Here are five things to help you make your best choice in an anxious moment:

  1. Do a quick check - am I really in physical danger? Chances are good that you are not, so take three, slow deep breaths, and move on to step two.
  2. Ask yourself -"what is my role in this?" In other words, be honest with yourself. What am I doing or failing to do that is increasing anxiety, and then, what can I do to lower it?
  3. Be curious, coming from a place of inquiry. What can I change in myself, and learn from this experience, to reduce the chances of this anxiety producing situation from happening again?
  4. Use playfulness to lessen tension in yourself and others. Don't take yourself too seriously!
  5. Decide to bring a calming presence to situations today and moving forward. Chances are others around you are responding anxiously. How do you remain calm in this experience and thus encourage others to remain calm? Focus on facts, rather than falsehoods, assumptions, judgements and, especially, gossip.

Becoming a less anxious presence using these five steps takes time and practice. It's a journey to be enjoyed! It’s also how we learn to "stay calm, stay the course, and stay connected."

Our Anxiety Series
Mike Nowland

Mike Nowland
To learn more about self-differentiation and reducing chronic anxiety and doubt with Resilient Leadership concepts, contact Mike at

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