Anxiety and the Brain: Part 1
Have you ever been driving somewhere and suddenly had the thought, “Did I lock the door before I left?” Then, just as your focus shifts back to the road, you notice the traffic light turn red and you slam on your brakes to stop before you cause an accident. Whew! You have just experienced two major types of anxiety; anxiety from our thoughts and what we think about, and anxiety from reactions to our environment. Almost everyone at some point in their life experiences anxiety. Sometimes anxiety is short lived, and other times it can be a debilitating, unrelenting nightmare that consumes your life. What is anxiety? What is the best way to treat or manage anxiety when it disrupts your life? This blog and upcoming blogs will dive deeper into what anxiety is, the neurological mechanisms behind anxiety, and how to successfully control and stop anxiety.
Anxiety is a complex emotional and physical response that is physiologically similar to fear. Both fear and anxiety can arise from emotional, mental, or behavioral reactions. The resulting changes in the body from fear or anxiety are similar. However, fear is different from anxiety because fear responses usually involve an immediate threat or stress; anxiety usually occurs in the absence of an immediate threatening stimulus. There are two main pathways in the brain that causes someone to experience anxiety; one pathway involves the cortex and the other pathway involves the amygdala. In the above example, the thought “did I lock my door before I left” involves brain pathways involved in the cortex, or frontal lobe. The reaction of braking at the red light to avoid an accident involves a different anxiety loop that is regulated by a brain area called the amygdala.
Traditionally, non-pharmaceutical approaches to treating anxiety have largely focused on the cortical anxiety loop. Most treatment is centered on cognition therapy, or the modification of the way we think. Thoughts originating in the cortex may be the cause of anxiety, and can also have the effect of increasing or decreasing anxiety. Sometimes, people can change their thoughts and prevent the cognitive loops from causing or contributing to anxiety episodes. Until recently, treatments centered on the amygdala and its contribution to anxiety were not largely considered or applied. New research has shown that the amygdala’s purpose is to attach emotional significance to situations or objects. The amygdala is made up of thousands and neurons and their circuits regulate the emotional attachment to feelings of love, anger, bonding, aggression, and fear. The emotions associated with situations, objects, people, or feelings can be positive or negative; it the amygdala’s job (along with the cortex) to learn and associate positive or negative emotions to different experiences. Over time, these emotions tied to behaviors, situations, and people turn into emotional memories. In terms of love and bonding, the smell or sight of a loved family member can put you in a very calm, comfortable and safe state of mind. However, negative emotions like anxiety can become attached to certain situations or activities that lead to frequent anxiety episodes from the memory of past negative emotions, leading to frequent, unrelenting episodes of anxiety.
The amygdala is at the heart of where anxiety and the physiological response to anxiety is produced. A thorough approach to anxiety should include mechanisms that look at both the cortical loop and the loop involving the amygdala. Over the past couple of decades, research on neuroplasticity and the brain’s ability to heal and change itself have dramatically altered the thought process and treatment approach to neurological symptoms, including anxiety. The functioning of neuron pathways and circuits are not determined completely by genetics; they are also modified and changed by the experiences, thoughts, and activities that we do every day. There is a surprising level of neurological change that you can make on your own with certain exercises and activities when performed properly. This includes changing the emotional and physiological responses of anxiety that may be neurologically tied to certain situations, thoughts, or activities! Future blogs in this series will delve deeper into how the cognitive and amygdala loops work, and how you can use that information to successfully transform your brain’s networks to resist anxiety, rather than creating it.
1. Pittman, Catherine M. and Karle, Elizabeth M. Rewire your anxious brain: how to use the neuroscience of fear to end anxiety, panic, and worry. Published and distributed by Harbinger Publications 2015.
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