Modern research has proven techniques for calming the anxiety centers in the brain and nervous system.
Should we stick with biblical remedies, take advantage of the findings of science, or a combination of both?
This book is about how to overcome spiritual anxiety.
Secular books on anxiety focus on the physical and mental aspects but neglect the spiritual aspect altogether. In the chapters ahead, I will show that treating the physical part alone does nothing for the spiritual. However, treating the spiritual causes of anxiety also cures the physical, mental, and emotional aspects.
So why a chapter on physical anxiety and the remedies discovered by modern studies? I include this material in combination with chapter six to show how the biblical instructions regarding anxiety heal both spirit and body.
The physical, neurological, mental, and spiritual components of anxiety each play a role, and each affects the others. You can’t just treat one while ignoring the others. The only remedy that will work long term is one that touches all the components at the same time.
The Body’s Smoke Detector
The headquarters for the body’s anxiety and fear response is a part of the brain called the amygdala, two small clusters deep inside your brain, one behind each optic nerve.
The amygdala works like a smoke detector. When it senses danger, it sets off the body’s red-alert system. It does that by releasing stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenaline) to prepare your body to respond to a threat.
Cortisol increases your blood sugar and cranks up your metabolism to give you quick energy. Adrenaline increases your heart rate and blood pressure, gives more oxygen to your muscles and brain, speeds up your breathing, heightens your senses, dilates your pupils, increases your mental alertness, and can even keep you from feeling pain.
And it all happens in an instant, before your mind even realizes anything is happening. All those responses happen in your body in less time that it takes for you to think a single thought.
And the amygdala senses a lot more than your conscious brain notices. When viewing photos of people with various emotional expressions, the amygdala lights up when there is an angry face. Even when they cycle through the images so fast that the test subject can’t even register the faces, the amygdala still activates when the angry face flashes. Your emotional brain catches far more than your conscious mind.
How Does It Know?
But how does the amygdala know what is dangerous and what isn’t? It doesn’t. The amygdala doesn’t really “know” anything. It’s not part of the conscious brain, so it is not capable of thought, reason, or logic.
Any cue associated with danger activates the amygdala. The neural networks that make those associations have nothing to do with logic—only the fact that something happened at the same time as something else. You smelled this odor, you heard that sound, and disaster happened. The neurons connected with the smell, the sound, and the disaster all fired at the same time, so they became linked.
In 1949, neuropsychologist Donald Hebb summarized his work in associative learning with the saying, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” That statement has become an axiom in neuroscience.
It’s the reason Pavlov’s dogs salivated at the sound of a bell. When neurons associated with food fire at the same moment the “I hear a bell sound” neurons fire, those two areas wire together. After that, when one of those areas is stimulated, the other will also activate.
In the book, Rewire Your Anxious Brain, Catherine Pittman and Elizabeth Karle describe an incident involving a woman suffering from memory loss in a hospital. As an experiment, one doctor shook her hand but had a pin in his palm that pricked her.
The next day, because of her condition, she had no memory of that doctor at all. But when he extended his hand to shake, she withdrew. They asked her why, and she had no idea. Her emotional brain stored the cue of that doctor’s handshake as a sensation memory associated with danger. But the thinking part of her brain forgot it completely.
This kind of memory is not recalled the way we normally think of memory. It’s not a visual snapshot or even an idea you can think about. Rather, the way the amygdala “remembers” a sensation memory is simply by activating that feeling or emotion again. You feel the same sensations you felt when the trauma happened—that’s your amygdala “remembering.”
Pittman and Karle tell another story of a girl who became panicky in some social situations but not others. She was baffled as to why until someone quizzed her and helped her realize it only happened when people were seated in a circle. Finally, she remembered a time when she was a child and was humiliated at school in a circle of students. Her amygdala had wired the feeling of humiliation with the circular setting. So that circular arrangement became a trigger to the amygdala without the cortex knowing it.
Suppose you were in a traumatic car crash. Your subconscious brain makes neural connections between the emotional memories and danger. The sound of a blaring horn and squealing tires, the smell of rubber, the taste of Dr. Pepper you sipped just before the impact, and Frank Sinatra singing Fly Me to the Moon on the radio. Your amygdala has now associated each of those sensations with danger.
Soon after the accident, you routinely drink Dr. Pepper without incident. This breaks the neural pathway connecting the delicious drink with danger. Your amygdala learns that Dr. Pepper isn’t dangerous, and so it deletes that association.
But ten years pass before the next time you hear Fly Me to the Moon. By this time, your conscious mind has completely forgotten that song was playing at the time of the accident. One day, you walk into a store and suddenly go into a panic attack. You have no idea why. You were just fine when you walked in, you weren’t thinking about anything stressful, but now your heart is racing, you can’t catch your breath, and you wonder if you’re having a heart attack.
The fact that Ol’ Blue Eyes is crooning over the store’s sound system is the farthest thing from your mind. You didn’t even notice.
But your amygdala did. That neural connection between that sound and danger was never broken.
This explains why panic attacks are so often unexplainable.
A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense anxiety accompanied by a feeling of impending doom and frightening physical symptoms, such as:
- Sudden and overwhelming feelings of intense fear or apprehension.
- Rapid heart rate.
- Chest pain.
- Shortness of breath or a feeling of being smothered.
- Sweating or chills.
- Sensations of choking or difficulty swallowing.
- Nausea or abdominal distress.
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or feeling faint.
- Tingling or numbness in the extremities.
- Hot flashes.
- Fear of losing control or going crazy.
- Fear of dying.
- A sense of detachment from reality or feeling like you’re in a dream.
- A strong urge to escape or leave the situation.
- A sense that the world is too bright (because your pupils are dilated).
Panic attacks typically last between one and thirty minutes. They are extraordinarily uncomfortable, but they won’t hurt you. You might feel like you’re dying, but those symptoms simply mean something set off your amygdala. It’s just a feeling, and it will pass.
While it’s happening, you may wonder if you’re losing your mind. More likely, your brain is working just fine. The sensations you are feeling are signs of a healthy, reactive body. Your amygdala is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do when it senses something associated with danger.
If the smoke alarm goes off at your house, you don’t worry about whether there’s something wrong with the house. You might even be glad to know your smoke detector is functional. When it goes off, you simply look around to discover if there is a real fire or if it was set off by the candles you just blew out or the dinner you’re frying on the stove.
If you have a random panic attack, thank God that your body’s emergency alert system is working. The only thing that’s wrong is your amygdala has associated some non-dangerous cue with danger.
So what can be done about that unnecessary trigger? Especially if you don’t even know what it is?
How to Rewire Your Brain
The good news is, while your amygdala can’t think, it can learn.
You’re never stuck with the brain you have. Traditionally, it was believed that the brain’s structure and function were relatively fixed when a person reached adulthood. However, research in the latter half of the 20th century showed that’s not the case. Neurologists discovered adult neuroplasticity—the ability of your brain to reorganize itself in response to your thoughts, actions, and experiences. You can rewire your own brain.
God equipped us not only with the ability to renew our minds (Romans 12:2), but also our brains.
A Smart Smoke Detector
Imagine a smoke detector in your house that could observe your responses. At first, it goes off whenever there is any smoke. But over time, it notices that when the smoke is from a fire, everyone runs out of the house. But when the smoke is from cooking some bacon for breakfast, no one reacts to the alarm. Everyone remains calm and waits for the alarm to shut off. Eventually, it learns not to set off the alarm for burnt bacon—only real fires.
Your amygdala can do that. When it sets off anxiety alarms for situations that shouldn’t call for it, you can retrain it by remaining calm and relaxed. When it activates anxiety responses in your nervous system but you don’t act in a way that reflects an emergency, it eventually learns, “Oh, I guess that kind of situation doesn’t call for stress hormones after all.”
And that’s true for extreme anxiety like a panic attack, or for mild anxiety, where you just feal uneasy for no apparent reason.
In some ways, you teach the amygdala like you teach a child. A very young child may not understand a logical reasoning process about why he has nothing to fear. But when he sees mom and dad aren’t rattled, it shows him this situation is not an emergency.
This is why experts always suggest slow, deep breathing for panic attacks. It sounds simplistic, but it’s backed by a large body of research. When you breathe in ways associated with relaxation, that teaches your amygdala, “This isn’t an emergency. See how relaxed I am?”
It helps to not only breathe slow and deep, but to expand your whole torso, not just your chest. The movement of the diaphragm can have the effect of massaging your liver, stomach, and heart. This type of breathing is thought to have beneficial effects on many internal organs.
Other ways to signal calmness to the amygdala include:
- Progressive muscle relaxation (intentionally relaxing each muscle in your body one at a time from head to toe).
- Visualization (imagining yourself in a pleasant, relaxing place or imagining yourself responding in a calm and rational manner).
- Positive social interactions.
- Calm, reassuring thoughts.
If you use those techniques each time anxiety is triggered, over time, it will disconnect the neural networks that were connecting a false trigger to danger signals.
It’s not necessary to discover what caused the negative memory. If people sitting in a circle triggers panic attacks, it doesn’t matter how that association was created. The retraining will work just as well regardless of whether you are aware of how the association was made.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
These insights into how to retrain the amygdala are also helpful in overcoming obsessive-compulsive disorder. When you feel the urge to re-check something you already double checked or perform some useless ritual out of habit, giving in to that urge reinforces the brain’s misconception that it needs to be done. But each time you resist the urge and find that your world doesn’t fall apart, you take another step in retraining your brain. And over time, you will no longer feel that compulsion.
Whenever unnecessary anxiety is triggered, it’s important to resist the urge to flee the situation. Fleeing may give some relief in the moment, but it will reinforce the neural networks that associate the trigger with danger. When you run away, your amygdala says, “I was right. This really is a dangerous situation.”
The difficult part of rewiring the emotional brain is the fact that a neural network can only be changed while it is active. If you’re afraid of flying, the network connecting sitting on the plane with danger can only be changed while those neurons are firing. You have to get on the plane, feel the fear, and respond with calmness.
Psychologists call this exposure therapy. The Bible calls it courage. Whatever the name, we must face our fears to defeat them.
And one reason this requires courage is it only works if we don’t treat the experience as an emergency. If you have a fear of crowds and you want to desensitize your amygdala to that fear, you might visit a mall. But if you bring a support animal or clutch a soothing object to comfort yourself, your brain won’t rewire. Just the opposite. Using that support aid only confirms to your amygdala, “This is indeed a dangerous situation.” You may feel temporary comfort, but you have only strengthened the faulty wiring in your brain.
It takes courage, but it is necessary to remain in the frightening situation until the feelings of anxiety subside. Leaving while you still feel anxious tells the amygdala that you escaped danger and only solidifies the fear.
This principle is important to remember when using anxiety medication. The two most common prescriptions are benzodiazepines and SSRIs.
Common Benzodiazepines: Xanax, Valium, Ativan, Klonopin
Common SSRIs: Lexapro, Zoloft, Prozac, Paxil, Celexa
Benzodiazepines sedate the amygdala. This calms the body, but it also interferes with the rewiring process. While sedated, the amygdala cannot relearn anything. You can only rewire a neural network while the neurons are in an active state—while you’re feeling the anxiety.
On the other hand, SSRIs can assist in the retraining process, as they promote growth and change in neurons. But be careful. The SSRI drugs will strengthen whatever activity is taking place in the brain. They promote plasticity (changeability), which means when you are on those medications, the structure of your brain is more easily changed—in either direction. If you are thinking in good ways, SSRIs can strengthen those neural pathways. However, if you are thinking in bad ways (such as worrying, fretting, or negativity) it strengthens those bad pathways.
The more often you follow the path of a negative thought process, the more you dig deep ruts in your brain in that direction. As a result, future thought processes fall into those ruts more easily. And if you think that way while using SSRIs, the ruts go even deeper.
Another way to calm physical anxiety is with exercise or hard work. Anxiety can have a freezing effect on some people, especially when combined with depression. Anxiety activates the fight/flight/freeze response in your nervous system. For some, the fight response is prominent and they become aggressive when they are anxious. Others flee. And others become immobilized.
But it’s important to keep moving. Physical activity increases metabolism, allowing the body to utilize the excess adrenaline and return to a more balanced state. Exercise can also trigger the release of endorphins, which are natural mood-boosting chemicals in the brain. Endorphins can help counteract the stress response, reduce anxiety, and promote a sense of well-being.
Working or engaging in exercise can also divert your attention away from anxious thoughts and redirect your focus to the activity at hand.
Yet another method of calming the amygdala is self-talk. We all know you can create anxiety by what you say to yourself. Dwell on everything that’s going wrong or that might go wrong, and very soon all your anxiety responses will activate.
The reverse is also true. The right self-talk can reduce anxiety. No one has more influence on how you feel than you do because no one talks to you more than you do. And what you say to yourself is very important. It will steer the direction of your life.
However, it’s not merely a matter of positive thinking. Not all positive thinking reduces anxiety. In chapter seven, I will provide detail on exactly what kinds of self-talk alleviate anxiety.
The Executive Function of the Brain
One final way to recover from anxiety—restoring the executive function of the brain.
God designed us as emotional beings. But he also gave us the ability to regulate our emotions through what neurologists call executive function.
During an emergency, the executive function is weakened. If the crisis is extreme, the emotional brain overrides the executive function completely. The emotion centers in your brain take over 100% and you can’t think at all.
This is a gift from God. Your nervous system can react much faster than your cortex can think. The moment before a car crash, you stop talking and your body has dozens of responses, none of which are under your conscious control. You didn’t decide to stop talking. Your emotional brain took over. The ability of your emotional brain to react this way has probably saved your life more than once.
But when it’s time to calm down, executive function must regain control to regulate your anxiety. The weaker your executive, the more anxiety and other emotions can rage out of control.
One method of restoring executive function is known as grounding. The goal here is to become as aware as possible of what you can see, hear, smell, taste, or feel in your surroundings.
And not only your surroundings, but your own body as well. Do a mental body scan, focusing on the physical sensations you have from head to toe. This kind of attending to the present moment activates executive function and moderates anxiety.
One of the simplest ways to restore executive function is to put the object of your anxiety into words. Name it.
In one study, thirty test subjects were shown photos of faces with various emotional expressions. When an angry face came up, scans showed activity in the amygdala, preparing the body for danger.
One group of test subjects was asked to select from two names under each picture, one male and the other female. The other group was to choose between two emotions.
Those who saw a picture of an angry man and chose the male label had the normal anxiety response in the brain that people have when they see an angry face. But those who labeled it as “angry” had a reduced anxiety response. Labeling the person as male was accurate, but it didn’t name the potential threat. Putting words to the problem is what calmed the anxiety response.
When you put a problem into words, it helps restore the executive brain’s ability to regulate anxiety.
Studies have also shown that labeling your emotions reduces the body’s anxiety reaction.
This isn’t always easy because anxiety can disrupt your ability to put thoughts into words, but even if it’s unsuccessful, the very effort of trying to do so will help activate executive function.
Beyond labeling, any form of analysis of the problem restores executive control. Our natural tendency is to lump all our problems together into one giant blob. Then we stress about it because there’s no solution to a giant blob. There’s no place to begin. And there’s no clear way forward because anything you do to deal with one part of the blob won’t do anything to solve the rest of the blob.
The obvious solution is to break the problem into its component parts. Place each aspect in the smallest, simplest box possible. You’ll find that most of the problems, seen by themselves, are quite manageable. But aside from that, the very act of attempting to particularize the various issues, even if you don’t succeed, still activates the brain’s executive function.
This isn’t easy it times of anxiety, but you don’t have to do it alone. Discussing your situation with someone else also stimulates executive function.
All the techniques described in this chapter are useful for calming the physical and mental components of anxiety. But by themselves, they are worthless. None of them will do anything to address the spiritual aspect of anxiety.
Ridding yourself of physical and mental symptoms while leaving spiritual causes untouched is like mopping up water without fixing the leaky pipe.
- Michael’s anxiety comes from an inability to trust in God’s promises to provide. He takes some Paxil, feels much better, but the next bill that comes in the mail sends him right back into distress.
- Jennifer has anxiety every day over her marriage. She comforts herself with eating, but the comfort only lasts a few moments.
- Jason’s stress comes from envy. He sees men with better jobs, higher salaries, prettier wives, or more respect, and it drives him crazy. He practices meditation and distracts himself with recreation and feels better … until the next time he sees his neighbor’s car.
Michael’s anxiety will keep returning until he learns to trust God. Jennifer will remain stressed until she learns to find comfort in God alone. Jason will make no progress until he overcomes envy with gratitude. Only God’s remedies can cure spiritual anxiety. And as long as the spiritual cause of anxiety remains, it will keep reactivating mental and physical anxiety no matter how many physical remedies you apply.
There is no lasting value in healing your mind and body while leaving your soul to wither on the vine.
What About Anxiety with Physical Causes?
But what about anxiety caused by physical problems, such as hormonal changes or an overactive amygdala?
The Body Affects the Spirit
While they may not have a spiritual cause, they still have a spiritual component, because everything that happens to your body affects your spirit.
Every hardship you ever face is a spiritual issue. According to James 1:3, all hardships are spiritual tests. Your response to every difficulty, whether it be the discomfort of menopause, a bad night’s sleep, pressure at work, a random panic attack, or the struggles of puberty—your response will either honor God or displease God. It will either strengthen your faith or undermine it. There are spiritual issues that are not physical, but there are no physical problems that are not spiritual.
Biblical Remedies Will Cure Physical Anxiety
So suppose you have anxiety caused by a physical problem. That has a spiritual impact. Maybe you’re tempted with anger or discontent. And you deal with that temptation using biblical principles. But what about the anxiety? If it had a physical cause, doesn’t it require a physical cure?
It does, but not in the same way other physical ailments do. If you have an infection, they can give you a drug to kill the infection. If you have a clogged artery, a surgeon can unclog it. But if you have anxiety, a surgeon can’t simply open up your brain and repair your amygdala.
There are drugs that can sedate it, but that’s not a long-term solution because your amygdala also plays a role in positive emotions. Suppose you feel overwhelmed because your anxiety level is at a nine and your hope and joy levels are at a six. So you take a drug that sedates your amygdala, and it brings your anxiety level from a nine down to a four. But it also brings your hope and joy levels from a six down to a one. So you still feel overwhelmed with anxiety.
So instead of drugs or surgery, the most effective treatments for physical anxiety are those described above in this chapter—relaxing the body and controlling the thoughts. Do that, and your body will do the rest.
Biblical Remedies Heal the Whole Person
The good news is this—almost all those physical remedies are included in the spiritual remedies God gives us in the Bible. The physical cures are baked in with the spiritual cures. God’s prescriptions for anxiety not only fix the leaky pipe, but at the same time also mop up the mess. God heals your whole being.
In chapter four, we looked at the first of God’s remedies (prayer) and saw how it fireproofs your heart against anxiety. In chapter six, I’ll point out how biblical prayer not only addresses spiritual anxiety, but also includes physical solutions.
This is to reassure you that the Bible is all you need. If all you have is a Bible, you don’t have to worry about missing out on the benefits of modern research. And that’s no big surprise, since the Author of the Bible is also the Designer and Creator of the human body.
For the video of this session, click here.
 Although there are two amygdales, they are traditionally referred to in the singular, like one might refer to “the human eye.”
 Whalen PJ, Rauch SL, Etcoff NL, McInerney SC, Lee MB, Jenike MA. Masked presentations of emotional facial expressions modulate amygdala activity without explicit knowledge. J Neurosci. 1998 Jan 1;18(1):411-8. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.18-01-00411.1998. PMID: 9412517; PMCID: PMC6793390.
 Catherine Pittman and Elizabeth Karle, Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry, 2015, audiobook, chapter 1.
 LeDoux’s ground breaking research on fear responses in the brain are credited for this understanding of the plasticity (changeability) of the amygdala. See especially his book The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (1996).
See also Roozendaal B, McEwen BS, Chattarji S. Stress, memory and the amygdala. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2009 Jun;10(6):423-33. doi: 10.1038/nrn2651. PMID: 19469026.
 Ma X, Yue ZQ, Gong ZQ, Zhang H, Duan NY, Shi YT, Wei GX, Li YF. The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Front Psychol. 2017 Jun 6;8:874. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874. PMID: 28626434; PMCID: PMC5455070.
 Rewire Your Anxious Brain, chapter 6, 9:40 mark.
 Grounding For Anxiety: Evidence Based Practice And Practice-Based Evidence, https://www.counsellingconnection.com/index.php/2023/02/20/grounding-for-anxiety/
 Cited by Robert Emmons in Gratitude Works!, 2013, audiobook, chapter 3.
 Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M.J., Tom, S. M., Pfeiffer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological Science, 18, 421-427 and Vago, D. R. & Silbersweig, D. A. (2012). Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): A framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6. doi: 10.3389/fnhuum.2012.00296.
 For detailed study on methods for restoring executive function, see The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life by Joseph LeDoux and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression by Zindel V. Segal, Mark Williams, and John D. Teasdale.