Amy doesn’t speak English, French, ASL, Mandarin, or any other spoken language. If you’ve ever tried to talk yourself out of your anxiety, then you know what I mean. In order to calm Amy down and get our prefrontal cortex (our thinking brain) to come online in our information-processing sequence, we need to understand the language of electrochemistry, which is the only one Amy understands. Amy is first to jump in on that information-processing sequence at 75 milliseconds—about four times faster than the blink of an eye. The thinking brain gets in much later, at 350 milliseconds (assuming Amy lets it in at all). So, the amygdala is processing information about the situation four times faster than our thinking brain is even aware it is happening. The diagram below shows what that looks like.
On the right side of the diagram, we see the timing of the information-processing sequence. Something happens to trigger one of our five senses and the amygdala is first to assess the situation and react to it. On the left, in the alert levels, you can see that your thinking brain is fully involved in the information sequence if Amy is not alerted—that is, if she doesn’t assess the situation to be a threat. If Amy is alerted at 30 percent, the thinking brain is still there but is only involved at 70 percent. So if Amy is alerted at 100 percent, she takes over completely. And Amy’s relationship with you goes deep: encompassing not only your brain, but your whole body as well.
Amy just wants you to survive, and concerns about your quality of life play no role in her designing a split-second solution to what she deems a threat. That’s O.K. if a mountain lion suddenly jumps into the path ahead, coming at you, and Amy causes you to instinctively remember that you should wave your arms wildly, make yourself look as big as you can and make as much noise as possible. What’s not good is when Amy causes you to scream, cuss, honk, step on the accelerator, and tailgate someone on the freeway at 70 miles per hour because they just endangered you by cutting you off in traffic.
Because, as noted before, our thinking brain often has little control over what the fear brain does in moments of stress, we have to initially work on the process of calming Amy down outside of these moments so we have resilience-building tools to use in those times when the warning lights start flashing. Resilience is a process that we can work on continually every day in our lives and calming the fear brain is part of that process. Let’s explore some ways we can do that.