Taming feelings of anxiety in the brain (and why we feel them)

Anxiety is a basic human emotion. We all have the capability of experiencing this emotion. Anxiety helps us to deal with the dangers in the world. Anxiety stops us from stepping in front of a bus and helps us to navigate difficult life situations. Normally, these feelings will be short-lived and the danger successfully diverted. But what happens when we are experiencing anxious feelings constantly?

The science bit...

I find the whole area of neuroscience fascinating, and I wanted to find out how and why we feel these powerful emotions. Why do they start and most importantly; what can we do to tame them?

The limbic system

We process information into the Amygdala (a small almond shaped fear-learning centre) in part of the limbic system in the brain. The Amygdala plays an important part in our learning and memory experiences. Information received via the Amygdala has not been analysed by our ‘higher cortical processing powers’ (the Prefrontal Cortex). This is a knee-jerk reaction moment. The information received is automatically linked directly to past experiences or memories; and our actions/thoughts/behaviours will follow the same automatic reaction that we have shown before. This is learnt behaviour. Behaviour that has shaped the development of our brains from childhood.

The Prefrontal Cortex is the most underdeveloped region of the brain at birth. The elements of this region are developed in response to our experiences, as we grow. This region adapts itself through our learnt experiences. The way we process and respond to emotions and external stimuli is driven by neural networks (the sympathetic nervous system - responsible for survival orientated tasks) and the parasympathetic nervous system (the calming influence on our thoughts that help us cope with for example; anxious feelings). 

A childhood full of nurture with caregivers that help us work out how to cope with strong emotions; who are able to soothe and teach us to self-regulate, helps to mould the Prefrontal Cortex and provide balance in our nervous systems. Traumatic experiences in childhood (for example: abuse and neglect) may result in this region being less capable of emotional regulation. Some of us are wired differently and may experience these feelings as part of everyday life anyway. This may develop into being less emotionally resilient (as a child and into adulthood) and cause stresses in everyday life. 

Rewiring the brain

This part of therapy is a case of ‘rewiring the brain’ so that the Prefrontal Cortex develops control over the fear-driven emotional brain areas, such as the Amygdala. By encouraging the use of the parasympathetic nervous system and a lot of mental hard work; we can be made aware of our habitual anticipation of threat (fight or flight response) and re-wire our brain to adapt to positive memories, that help us feel safer and emotionally resilient. By being able to understand why and how we experience these feelings, will help us to be able to put coping strategies into place. 

References: www.neuropsychotherapist.com

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