Growing anxiety

Anxiety is pretty much considered a modern disease or, more exactly, a diss-ease. A lot of blame is placed on social media. On the hours and hours of screen time, bombarding youngsters with impossible expectations and demands, leading them to feel insecure failures - unless they become like the stars they're taught to envy. I agree there is a lot of truth in that but, if that is the whole story, why do not all youngsters bombarded by such social media develop anxiety? Could there be something more to it? An influence that makes some more susceptible than others? Let's go back to basics.


Our brains

Our brains are effectively grown as three brains in one, functioning in a general hierarchy and are grown according to a biological clock - regardless of how well their growing needs are met. Think of it like a house being built to a deadline, without any quality control - even if elements are not supplied when needed, the house will still be built to the deadline but without the missing things. Maybe the foundations, maybe a window, maybe the roof. Unlike a badly built house, with the brain there is no real scope to add these later. We can potentially add a few psychological boards over the missing windows or buckets to catch drips but the fundamental build will remain.

What are the three brains and how fast are their clocks?

Reptilian (visceral) brain

First, we have the reptilian brain, also known as the visceral brain - it is developed in the womb and is what our distant ancestors possessed when they emerged from the sea onto land. It enables basic functions to keep us alive, such as breathing and telling our heart to pump.

It learns reflexive and repetitive responses to danger - get burned by fire and it will remember that fire burns, don't touch. If we see a friend killed by fire the response will be stronger - a trauma that could deeply affect our association with fire for the rest of our lives. But, and here is the but, it will be in our subconscious.

We do not have to be conscious of the reptilian brain's control for it to dictate our basic responses. It evolved to ensure our survival and has clearly done its job well or we wouldn't be here. The reptilian brain can also be stimulated from above, by the second brain - having trauma responses fed to it and memorised in reflexive responses.

Manifestation: terror at the sight of a candle.

Mammalian (emotional) brain

Second, we have the mammalian brain, also known as the emotional brain. This sits above the reptilian brain and evolved to give us human characteristics such as love, hate, desire and sociability. It is what enables us to function as an inter-active species and our larger capacity for it saw us dominate the individually superior Neanderthals - we worked together better than they did. It is also what makes someone psychopathic or narcissistic when it does not function properly.

If our reptilian brain feeds us a trauma response to something, our mammalian brain is where it is felt and where things like anxiety manifest pour from. If we go to the fire example, unless the fear is resolved, the brain can associate more fires with fear and, over time, this can increase to a fear of all fires - potentially to the point where we run away screaming if someone just lights a candle. But we won't know the reason.

Manifestation: “I feel too anxious to go to work but I don't know why.”

Neocortex (intellectual) brain

Third, we have the neocortex, also known as the intellectual brain. This is where we perform our feats of genius and cognitive acts, like driving a car, using our phone and remembering where we live. If we are helped to understand and face our traumas, the intellectual brain can often override the lower two brains.

It is the most powerful of the three but also places great stead in the emotional inputs from below. If some shadow looks like a potential murderer in a dark alley we don't stand there thinking about it or go to ask them “Are you a murderer?” - we hurry away; saving ourselves, even if it was just our imagination. Our natural state involves this level of paranoia - a better to be safe than sorry approach, evolved when our daily worlds were far more dangerous than they are now, and it remains intrinsic to us. 

Traumas and fears tend to get buried in the subconscious, because there were no process to deal with them at the time, so our intellectual brain doesn't realise the cause of the emotions, the anxiety, coming from below so it follows the fear and becomes driven by it. As with the fire example, the anxiety can grow into a fear of literally everything associated - as if our brains become focused on avoiding all such outside influences. This can lead to a level of anxiety too great to even walk in our own garden, let alone interact with others. Our intellectual brain has an ultimate answer to emotional overload from below - it simply slams the door closed and cuts it off.

Manifestation: “I don't feel anything any more.”


As our brains start life in the womb, the biological influences from the mother are there from the very start. Whatever the mother feels, the unborn child feels too. It won't be understood but it will be felt. Happiness, love and joy or stress, anger, upset and fear.

Whatever emotions dominate a pregnancy will dominate the unborn's brain and that will be what it emerges with into the outside world - feelings based on what it has felt inside. Imagine the fears the babies being born in war zones to constantly terrified and upset mothers must be emerging with. The newborn brain has not developed yet - its feelings and thinking can still be changed or they can be reinforced, for better or for worse.

The first six months after birth are critical to the foundations of the second brain. Stimulation by touch, voice, love, security and fully met needs - no matter how illogical they may seem to a parent - is crucial. A straw poll was done amongst classmates in my sixth form and it asked two questions: were you breast fed and are you politically left or right wing? The results were surprisingly consistent. The breast-fed were all Labour (social focused), while the bottle-fed all Conservative (object focused).

Children that suffer neglect, such as with alcoholic, uncaring or absent social interactions, can develop insecurity and the fragile ego associated with cluster B personality disorders, such as narcissism. Everything is based on emotions and needs - no moderation by the intellectual brain, for it is still developing and has yet to understand its place.

Our bodies and brains

Our bodies need our brains but don't forget our brains need our bodies too and their primary function is to ensure survival of both. If they feel fear they will seek refuge, if they can't find refuge the stress levels will not just be high but will remain high - with all the damage high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can do. “Leave the baby to 'cry it out'” has been a mantra by some. Consider how that must feel to a baby feeling nothing but fear and now added abandonment too. In reality, there is no 'cry it out' solution but a pass out from exhaustion, mental and physical, in a world of fear.

Early life and brain development

The first three years of life can be considered the grow period for the second brain. The time when its ability to handle social contact and the world around is developed and established. Stimulation, positive or negative, will dictate how the growing goes and how the neural pathways are built. This is the period where people can become narcissists, psychopaths or balanced human beings.

It is a growth period confirmed as crucial by the Romanian orphan study I've talked about before. For orphans adopted after the age of three, no matter how much love and kindness then shown, it was too late for their second brains to grow back the under-grown areas in the orbitofrontal cortex that helps us deal with emotions and social inputs. Brain scans literally showed holes in the brain where these areas should have been. Deny a brain the stimulation to grow properly and the impact will be there for life - manifesting itself as poor emotional handling or a personality disorder as key features that will be there for life. Yes, some degree of logical guidance can be taught, assuming it is wanted, but the fundamental characteristics of the second brain will remain.

From infancy to the age of seven, the third brain, the intellectual brain, is being developed. By the age of seven it too is pretty much fixed in its ways. It has already become the basic character of the person, as it will be into adulthood and old age. If wanted, it can be taught to improve or regress according to life experiences but the fundamental characteristics will always remain - including susceptibility to anything related to what lies in the subconscious and what we call the 'life script' - the essence with which we view ourselves. If our life script relates to fear or insecurity we can be susceptible to anxiety. If it relates to a lack of self-worth, we can end up as co-dependents in abusive relationships.


Where does that leave us in the now? Despite all the above, our brains retain a degree of plasticity. New neural pathways can be built as can new ways of looking at things. Yes, the 'build quality' of our brain will always be there but we can work on it and make things better than they are. In terms of therapy, by going back into childhood roots and working through past hurts, the intellectual brain can get to understand the emotional surges being fed to it. Knowledge very much is power, no where more so than within ourselves.

While cognitive therapy can work wonders, in my view, we ignore the emotional subconscious at our peril. The subconscious, by its very nature, is hidden from our intellectual brains. We evolved to survive based on emotional responses and that is what anxiety is. An emotional response based on pre-historic life or death survival mechanisms - which is why it can be so powerful, regardless of any lack of logic for screaming at the sight of a lit candle.

To deal with the fears of the anxious, what if we first seek to understand the fears driving it and where they come from? Find that forgotten, buried time in the past that has been subconsciously carried into current life, like a buried thorn in the side?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, MK9
Written by Brad Stone, Integrative Therapist - MBACP, Dip.
Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, MK9

Brad Stone is an integrative therapist and writer, in private practice at Therapy Brad.

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