Understanding Anxiety, The Biology of Fear Ep. 1:4 of Teen Anxiety Podcast

A Deeper, Clearer Understanding of Anxiety is needed to Heal It.

This episode goes with Chapter 1, Section 4 of Anxiety…I’m So Done With You!

biology of anxiety 2

In this episode, I enhance your understanding of anxiety by relaying the straightforward biology of your emotional health. I discuss the following:

  • What anxiety is and what anxiety isn’t
  • How you should think about it
  • How do you know if you have an irrational fear or rational fear
  • Why anxiety seems to come out of the blue
  • How to stop anxiety in its tracks

I continue to demystify it by explaining its biological roots, so you understand anxiety and how it behaves. This will help you so much.

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Episode transcription

Hey, you’re here with Dr. Jodi, and this is “Anxiety… I’m So Done With You!” 

I am so excited about this podcast. It accompanies my book by the same name, “Anxiety… I’m So Done With You!” It’s a teen’s guide to ditching toxic stress and hardwiring your brain for happiness, because that is what we’re going to do in the series: We’re ditching that freaking toxic stress and hardwiring your brain to generate happiness every day. 

This is what you do: You read or listen to a section of the book. Then come on over here and listen to an episode where we’re going to go a little bit deeper, give more examples, and tell more stories. I want to provide you with everything you need to be sure that you find your way out of this horrible anxiety cycle so that you no longer have to suffer. Please leave me a five-star review on Apple podcasts. That’ll help me get in the ears of more people who need this series. Mental health problems are skyrocketing, especially among teenagers, and this series will change the tide.


Welcome to Chapter 1, Section 4: The Straightforward Biology

Hey, you’re listening to chapter one, section four, The Straightforward Biology. Here is what we’re going to cover in this episode. We’re going to cover what anxiety is and what it isn’t. We’re going to cover how you should think about it, how you know if you have “irrational” fear or “rational” fear, why anxiety seems to come out of the blue, why it needs you to be upset, and how to stop anxiety in its tracks. Let’s get started.

You’ve read about the actual biology of anxiety in this section, and I tell you about everything that is happening in your brain, so you know how to override it. I’ll review a little bit of that here to go a little bit deeper, but it’s going to be so valuable to you in helping you understand everything else that I talk about. If you want a deep-dive video on the biology of anxiety, you could check out my Diamond Confidence e-course.

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What Anxiety Isn’t

All right, let’s first talk about what anxiety isn’t. It isn’t a chemical imbalance, it isn’t something wrong with you, it isn’t something that you’ll have forever and it isn’t an illness in your brain. Let’s talk about some of these myths. Pharmaceutical companies kicked off their marketing campaign for antidepressants and they changed the word hormone to chemical because chemical seems a bit more menacing, it seems a bit more out of control or something that is wrong with you, and then they use the word imbalance. Hormones don’t feel as threatening, they’re regular. We all know that we have them and we don’t feel crazy or different for having hormones. Hormones go up and down all the time, so balanced is not a metaphor that’s appropriate for them. Also, the term chemical imbalance is damaging because it makes people think that they are different, that some people have a chemical imbalance and other people don’t have a chemical imbalance. That’s just not true, and as you’ll learn when we talk about stigma, it makes stigma worse.

Remember in the last episode we talked about anxiety as the leftover fear response when you’re not in physical danger, it’s caused by the hormone adrenaline. So adrenaline levels go up and down all the time. What you have learned from this section of the book is that you have more control over this than you think you do. Adrenaline is a good thing, but only when we need it. It gives us this superhuman strength to survive something if our life is threatened. However, research has shown that 98% of the time, we don’t need it. So we have to learn how to respond that 98% of the time.

Leftover body response

Anxiety, as I defined it, is never needed. It’s that leftover body response to the adrenaline when you don’t need it, when you’re not in danger. It makes you feel awful and helpless and weak and like something is very wrong, but it’s not. Anxiety’s only there when you don’t need it because if you were in a physical dangerous situation, you’d be taking action and doing something with the adrenaline response of your body. Your muscles have more capacity, you’re breathing and getting the oxygen to them, you’re focused on what you have to do to survive and you’re doing those things. So it’s using up that adrenaline energy and you don’t end up anxious.

If you were in the woods and there was that saber-toothed tiger that was threatening to eat you and you ran away, you would be using all of that adrenaline energy to run back to your village to safety. And once you arrived you’d be like, “Oh, I can’t believe it, oh my gosh, this all happened.” And you’d tell the story to your community and they’d be like, “Oh my gosh. Wow, you survived. This is amazing.” In the storytelling of the event, you’re processing what happened, and by processing it, you’re telling your brain that you’re safe again.

Understanding the amygdala

So let’s go over the biology of anxiety because I keep referring to it. You read it in the book, but it’s okay to repeat this because it is essential for you to know. The amygdala is that almond shaped cluster in the center of your brain. This is where it triggers your adrenaline and it triggers the adrenaline with emotional memory. So that means it’s memory that comes from your emotions and you don’t have the cognitive thought about it yet. It does this because it’s faster. When you’re trying to think of thought, it takes too long and you want that adrenaline to be in your body so that you could survive as fast as possible. Because emotional memory is faster than cognitive memory, that is what’s used to trigger the amygdala and trigger the adrenaline.

Now what happens is that when it triggers your adrenaline and your body gets flushed with the adrenaline, the amygdala sends a message to the prefrontal cortex and says, “Hey, something’s wrong, figure it out, get us a plan, get us out of here, survive.” The prefrontal cortex takes over at that point and looks around and decides if you’re in danger or not. The way that our brain was evolved to work is that the prefrontal cortex looks around and says, “Nope, I don’t see any danger, everything’s okay.” And it sends the message back to the amygdala to stop the adrenaline because we are okay. This is the interesting part because if you think about thousands or millions of years ago, while this brain was evolving, anything weird, anything strange, anyone looking at you funny, all of those could mean danger. Your sympathetic nervous system was created to trigger in any of these occasions so that it could protect you in case.

The prefrontal cortex

The sympathetic nervous system doesn’t release adrenaline when you are in danger, it releases it in case you were in danger. That makes all the difference because 98% of the time we don’t need it, but it’s there in case we needed it. I want you to know a couple of things about this system. One is that the message system from the prefrontal cortex back to the amygdala is not so strong. It was not developed because it’s not necessary for survival as much as the message system from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex, which is lightning fast.

Your prefrontal cortex is part of your mammalian brain, and the amygdala is part of your reptilian brain. And that reptilian brain, wow, it’s very powerful and very strong in getting you to believe that you are in danger, but the mammalian brain can override it. It’s just that we don’t really know that it can, and now that you’re reading this and listening to this podcast, you know that your mammalian brain can override that reptilian brain. You could look around and decide that you are safe and you could tell your reptilian brain that you’re safe.

The other detail that I’ve noticed is that when the message system comes from your amygdala and goes to your prefrontal cortex and says, “We’re in trouble, something’s wrong, I got the body ready, find out what’s wrong.” The prefrontal cortex is looking around and not seeing any danger, but says, “I don’t see any danger, but I feel it, so keep pumping those hormones because I got to figure out what’s wrong.” That’s our modern humanity is thinking that feeling in danger means that you’re in danger, this is how anxiety is learned. When that happens unconsciously, you believe it, but now we have to bring consciousness into the situation where you could actually look around and say, “I don’t see any danger, I’m okay. Yes, I feel it, but that doesn’t mean that I am in danger.”

You never need anxiety

In the next episode, I’m going to give you an actual script that you could say to your amygdala to stop this process. Remember in the last episode, we defined anxiety as the leftover fear response when you don’t need it. It makes you feel awful, it makes you feel helpless, it makes you feel weak, and it makes you feel like something is very wrong with you. The way we define anxiety is that you never need it, it’s left over when you are not in danger. I’m reminding you of this because I know anxiety repeats itself over and over, telling you that it’s helping you or protecting you or you’re in danger or whatnot, and I need to repeat the positive over and over so it sinks in.

Anxiety wants you to keep it, and as long as you think it helps you, you’re not going to get rid of it. That’s why it does this; that’s why it tells you that it helps you. So I’m going to keep reminding you that anxiety is good for nothing, it doesn’t help you. If there is something in your life that helps you survive, like putting a seatbelt on, don’t say something like, “The anxiety makes me put my seatbelt on.” Or “Fear makes me put my seatbelt on.” Call it something different, say “Common sense makes me put my seatbelt on.” That language tells your brain that you are empowered instead of disempowered. I digress though, let’s chat about rational fear versus irrational fear, and something like normal worries versus anxiety disorder. I’ve heard that these things are still being distinguished in high school health classes. This quandary, whether you have rational fear or irrational fear, or normal worries versus anxiety disorder, it sets off a whole new problem to pursue as you try to figure out what you are.

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Rational vs. irrational fear

Let’s look at this, what is rational fear? That means it’s rational to fear that thing, like if you were in a tiger’s cage, it would be rational to be afraid. But that’s obvious; that’s not what people are wondering about. They’re wondering if it’s rational to be afraid that you might get into a car accident because there’s a remote possibility that you might if you spend any time at all in a car. By this tactic, you could say anything is a rational fear if there is some possibility, but how is that helpful to you?

Let’s talk about irrational fear, what is irrational fear? It’s being afraid of something that’s impossible. For example, being afraid that a purple fox would lock you out of your bathroom. That’s not what people are trying to figure out. They’re trying to figure out if it’s rational or irrational to be afraid of that car accident, both of them could be arguable. See, trying to figure out one or the other is unhelpful and distracting. It’s the monkey creating chaos and a problem for us to solve. Is this rational or irrational? You could turn your ankle, you could get electrocuted when you plug something in, you could slip on a banana peel. People are not usually afraid of these things. Instead, anxiety uses something that’s meaningful to you, like someone’s going to break up with you or maybe someone’s talking about you behind your back or maybe you’ll get fired, and it uses what if?

How many of you does anxiety use this little phrase with? What if it’s possible? What if it happens? Anxiety wants us to be upset about some possibility of something remote happening in the future and it says, “Get upset now. Suffer right now because you have to figure out how you could prevent this potential slight remote possibility of suffering sometime in the future.” Anxiety wants you to stay suffering in the present to prevent or to protect you from some remote possibility of suffering in the future. Let me give you two more scenarios. One person is very anxious all the time because they’re worried about something happening in their future, so they’re constantly panicking. They’re withdrawing from life, they’re isolating themselves, they’re not able to go out and hang out with people, they’re not trying anything new because they have so much anxiety, so they’re not getting in touch with their skills and abilities.

And then there’s another person who’s not letting the anxiety take over their life. They’re doing hard things and building skills and resources, connecting to other people so they have a community around them. Think about both of those people. If something bad happened, who would be more prepared? The anxiety is telling that anxious person that it’s protecting them, but it is not, it is the opposite that’s happening. So you don’t have to figure out if your fear is rational or irrational, just let that question go. You do not have to figure out if you have regular worries or an anxiety disorder. If your worries are anxiety or nervousness or OCD or whatever you want to call it is interrupting your life, you can get some help and figure out how to get rid of it.

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There is always a trigger

Next, it’s really important to talk about how anxiety seems to come out of the blue because that makes it really mysterious, making it very scary. Again, anxiety wants you to not understand it at all because then it makes you feel powerless. There is always a trigger, there is always a context that triggers your anxiety, but it’s an emotional memory that triggers it. That means your body gets flushed with adrenaline before your cognition comes online. You already have the adrenaline in your bloodstream before your brain starts to know that something is happening. So it feels like it’s coming out of the blue, but it is always caused by something. It could be a sound, it could be a smell, it could be a feeling in your body like, “Oh no, that feels a little weird, I hope I don’t have anxiety.” It could be just that statement, “Oh no, I hope I don’t get anxiety right now.” And that triggers an emotional memory of the last time that you had anxiety and how uncomfortable that that felt. That’s why it feels like it comes out of the blue.

If you worked with somebody like me, they might help you figure out what triggers that you have so that you could see them coming. Once you know them and understand them coming, then anxiety doesn’t feel so mysterious, and you feel a little bit more in control; you’re not as scared of it. Anxiety needs you to be scared, and not just that, it needs you to be upset at all because if you’re frustrated with it, if you’re bothered by the anxiety, if you’re embarrassed by the anxiety, if you’re upset about it, if you’re scared about it, if you’re mad about it, if you’re sad about it, all of those things release adrenaline. All of these feelings, any negative feelings that you have release adrenaline. I know all of these emotions feel differently, but in your body it’s all the same hormone.

How Anxiety Spirals

If anxiety comes and you’re bothered at all, your prefrontal cortex will tell your amygdala, “Keep pumping those hormones because you’re upset and you need to figure this out.” And the monkey gets involved and you start to create problems and it gets worse and worse and worse, this is how anxiety spirals. What this tells us is that you need to not be bothered by the anxiety, and I know, I know it’s really hard not to be bothered by anxiety. Of course, anxiety feels horrible, so, of course, you’re bothered by it, of course, it scares you, of course, it upsets you, but we need to take a little bit of a moment to understand, demystify anxiety, know it’s just hormones and not be afraid, and then it’ll go away faster. That’s how we’re going to get it to go away.

Were you ever startled when one of your family members came in the room and you had your earphones on and you didn’t know that they were coming and then they touched your shoulder and you jumped a mile because they scared you, you didn’t expect them? Your adrenaline goes off in that situation, so think about the last time something like that happened. How long did it take for you to recover? Somebody tapped you, you jumped a mile. You could feel that adrenaline in your body, you could feel that under your skin going and going. How fast did it take you to calm down?

Usually after a situation like that, you start laughing because it’s actually really funny that your family member startled you and you made this noise and you’ve jumped a mile. How long does it take you to recover? They tapped you on the shoulder, you jump a mile, you might have made a funny noise. Often you start laughing, how fast does it take you to calm down? You could feel that adrenaline in your body, pretty fast, right? This is because you are not afraid of it, you’re laughing, you know you’re safe, you’re not afraid of it. This is how fast your adrenaline will calm down if you’re not afraid of it. I’m telling you not to be upset or bothered by the anxiety.

Luckily, you don’t have to do that for too long because it happens quite quickly, and what happens is the GABA hormone gets released. When your prefrontal cortex overrides that reptilian brain and says, “We’re okay, everything is okay.” Quite quickly, the GABA hormone gets released into your system and puts the brakes on the adrenaline. “Ah, feels so good.” That’s called the parasympathetic nervous system response, and it calms you, makes you feel so good, that GABA hormone makes you feel so good, and we talked about it a little bit in the last episode. These episodes are for you. Remember, anxiety repeats itself over and over and over, so you might have to listen to them over and over and over. You might have to listen to a section of the book or reread a section of the book over and over and over. That is okay, that is human and whatever it takes to get you better, it is absolutely worth it, absolutely worth it.

Action helps release GABA

From this section, we learned that you want to not be afraid of the anxiety, so we wanted to demystify the anxiety so you’re no longer afraid of it, and you could understand it, and you know what to do. In the next section, we’re going to talk about the exact script that I want you to use, to help yourself calm down. That’s what I want, your mammalian brain to tell your reptilian brain. The other thing I learned when I was in my process of recovering from anxiety and I was diving deep into the biology of anxiety to try to help myself understand what was going on in my life, I learned that action also helps release the GABA. So there’s two things that I go over in the section. Two things, one is not being afraid and the other is taking action.

Those are the things that are going to calm you down the fastest when you have anxiety because both of those things release the GABA hormone. So you want to not be scared for a bit of time, and then you want to take your attention off the anxiety and put it on some task at hand and do some kind of action. Any verb will do, you could walk, you could organize, you could think, you could read, you could make something. You just want to do something, you don’t want to sit down and do nothing because that’s going to give all the brain space to the anxiety, get you focused and upset about the anxiety so it continues to perpetuate and also doesn’t help you release the GABA hormone.


Thank you so much for listening to this podcast, I hope it really helped you integrate this section of the book, because we talked about what anxiety is, that biology of anxiety, how to think about it, how it always comes from somewhere, and what the anxiety needs from you. And I also told you a little bit more about the GABA hormone and how to increase it because we want that GABA hormone to come online as soon as possible.

You’ll find everything I reference in the series on the resource page, jodiaman.com/resources. Of course, that link will be in the show notes along with that Diamond Confidence course, which I made to help teens let go of the past, plan for their future and handle life in the present. You’ll embrace your confidence to maximize your potential.

I really appreciate you, thanks so much for subscribing and commenting and rating me with five stars. I’m convinced that your time and attention to the series will save so much of your suffering, so share the love because you never know who might really need this message today. Get to reading or listening to chapter one, section five, The Heartbreaking Triggers. This next section will heal your heart and soul and change your life for the better. I can’t wait for you to read it and then come on over here to the next episode, I’ll meet you there.

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