When we hear the word “extinction” we may think of the sad decline and existence of a biological species. Sometimes the word is applied to putting out a fire. When it is applied to anxiety, the process is more like a sprinkling system.
For the anxiety prone person, the mind may feel like it is on fire at 2 am in the morning. Seemingly out of nowhere, sleep ceases. The spark happens and quickly envelops the brain like a wildfire. “Did I hear a noise downstairs, and is the alarm on?” “Are the kids in yet—I didn’t hear the door slam.” “Did I pay the electric bill this month?” “I have an ache behind my eyes—I wonder if something is wrong.” “I have to go to sleep so I can get up in the morning.”
Therapy for anxiety can take many forms. One of these is controlled exposure to anxiety triggers. Talking through a deep seated fear in a safe environment over a period of time can begin to loosen the grip that a fear has on the mind, not only in the present moment, but in the dark of the night when it invades our lowered defenses during sleep. Talking through the roots of an anxiety isn’t done in a single session. It takes as long as it takes to develop a pattern by which our prefrontal cortex can buy enough time to override a hypersensitive and raging amygdala. Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist and author of Synaptic Self, describes the process as “clamping down on the amygdala, sort of like the brakes.”
It is most likely not an extinction of anxiety that we are about, but an understanding that we can by intent and informed practice affect the climate in our heads.