Anxiety, The Lizard Brain, and How You Can Take Back Control

Written by Dahyana P. Schlosser, PMHNP-BC

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions. In fact, there are approximately three million cases diagnosed a year in the United States. Furthermore, the age range for those diagnosed with anxiety for the first time is 14 to 60 years old.

What Is Anxiety Anyway?

Think of anxiety as being the result of the faulty wiring of natural survival mechanisms. Humans come equipped with built-in capabilities meant to keep us alive. A lot of the structures that house this wiring live in what some of us like to call the “Lizard” part of our brain. That is the part of our brain that developed first for the purpose to protect us.

As time went on, we evolved, and our brain developed more advanced capabilities. Hence, our ability to reason, communicate with language, etc. But, just because we developed all of these awesome things that make it cool to be human, doesn’t mean our “Lizard” isn’t still firing away. You know, trying to stay relevant and protect us.

Typically, we are able to reason with this part of our brain. Tell it to relax when it is acting up. Like after you almost get into a car accident, your heart races, your palms may be sweaty, and you are on super high alert. You had to get that way in order to act quickly enough to avoid the accident. Or, in order to protect yourself as much as possible if it were to happen. But, after a minute of you saying “whoa that was close” and “I’m okay,” you are able to turn the radio up again and forget about it.

However, in the case of anxiety, our reasoning is simply not enough. That “Lizard” grabs a hold of you and if your particular “Lizard Brain” is especially feisty, it can rock your whole world.

People with anxiety are riddled with worry that can leave them feeling restless, revved up, and/or stuck. Flight, Fight, Freeze.

Taking Control of the “Lizard”

Mainly, once people understand the why, the interventions aimed at regaining control over the “Lizard” make more sense. So here’s what we know so far…

  1. The “Lizard Brain” came first, it means well, and wants to keep us alive. If it thinks something is scary or dangerous it rings all of the alarms until safety is restored.
  2. Sometimes the “Lizard Brain” can malfunction– it is super old after all.
  3. Reasoning with the “Lizard Brain” alone doesn’t work.

As a result, we’ve got to take a multifaceted approach to contain it, calm it down, and let it know who’s in charge.