Anxiety in the Brain

Anxiety in the Brain

Anxiety is a function of the brain, as indeed all aspects of knowledge, intuition and personality are. The brain is a vastly complex organic machine, home to the various glands and neuro-connections that give us our reactions, memories thoughts, maybe even the very ‘human’ part of us.

When a stimulus is experienced, or as is the case with chronic anxiety not experienced, then it is the Amygdala (prl: Amygdalae) that is in action. The amygdalae are found in the medial temporal lobe, one either side of the mid-line and very central to the brain. They consist of clusters of nerve cells and function to create and store memories associated with emotion.

When born, humans are quite notably without ‘experience’. We are not wise to the world and have to learn everything from scratch (whether we carry genetic memory, the existence of the collective unconscious and whether we are predisposed to specific traits is for arguing another time). Important in our learning and understanding of our place in the world is the experience of pain and the skill of anticipating pain to avoid it in the future. It is the role of the amygdalae to respond to pain and store the memory of the experience for reference.

When stimulated, in a bad way, the receiving nerve cells send a message to the brain via two separate pathways. One travels through the cortex for processing of the stimulus and reaction in the pre-frontal cortex, the other ‘skips’ straight to the amygdala which in turn stimulates the Sympathetic Nervous System via the Hypothalamus. It is this two-pronged approach that means that if you touch a hot surface, first you whip your hand away, then you say ‘ooowwwwwwhhhhaaa!’, then you think ‘mustn’t do that again!’.

The beauty of the amygdala, but also its problem about irrationality is its accuracy or indeed lack of it. The amygdala is designed only to be quick. The ‘fight or flight’ response that we have evolved with has to be instantaneous. Over time (our lives) the response we have to situations is altered to be more appropriate. This is why in general adults are less ‘afraid’ than infants, they simply have more experience, and their amygdalae have less reason to fire. This is not to say that sufferers of chronic anxiety have under-developed amygdalae. The ‘conditioning’ that keeps adults from general fear can work negatively and programme people to be more afraid of everyday occurrences.

Remember, the brain cannot tell the difference between real danger and a perceived one. Whether or not a threat exists or not is irrelevant to the amygdala, it will respond anyway. The symptoms of anxiety are the by-product of the body going through extended bouts of amygdala stimulation.

What this all means is that any anxiety disorder is a learned behaviour. There may very well be a genetic predisposition to the conditioning, but if the amygdala is responsible for anxiety, then by addressing the amygdala directly we can treat anxiety at the roots.

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