What is anxiety?
Ever have those conversations, where somebody tells you all about the symptoms of their latest health discovery. You realise that you too could tick every one of them off the list? This is happening more regularly with anxiety. You hear the word thrown about in conversations, sometimes prompting you to ask the question; what is anxiety?
Put simply, anxiety is you behaving like a normal animal with the addition of a human brain!
Anxiety is a coverall word for the symptoms you experience when your body goes into or gets stuck in what we know as the fight or flight response. This is the normal reaction of any animal brain when faced with something that is a threat to your life.
Keeping you alive
Your brain’s purpose is to keep you alive. The brain stem is responsible for swallowing, blood pressure, breathing, heartbeat and more. The cerebellum is responsible for balance, coordination, and walking. And so on. The brain looks after you in a perfectly natural and animalistic way. So, what is anxiety?
The functioning brain
The brain has an area known as the frontal lobe; this is the area of the brain most developed in humans when compared to other animals.
Within the frontal lobe is the prefrontal cortex which takes charge of planning, predicting consequences, decision making and social behaviours.
The orbitofrontal cortex, which understands information, regulates mood, and controls impulses.
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex processes rewards and controls the physical feeling to emotion.
A typical human brain functions with something known as inhibitory top-down control. This is a tool that selects the most appropriate reaction in each moment.
Neurologists believe that a disruption in this expected brain activity is partly to blame for the symptoms of anxiety.
The limbic system
In addition to this your brain has an area known as the limbic system. The limbic system is the area of the brain that processes emotions.
The limbic cortex deals with pain, covering the pain intensity, unpleasantness, and thoughts, processing this information about the internal body state.
The hippocampus has control over the hypothalamic stress-response system and deals with the negative feedback (the urge to correct a situation when there is a difference between an experience and the ideal situation set by the brain) for the part of the brain that is responsible for maintaining homeostasis and the body’s response to stress. The size of the hippocampus and the growth of new cells have been considered when looking at stress sensitivity and resilience to disordered anxiety.
The amygdala processes distinct emotions to external things and triggers the appropriate behavioural response including aggression, fear, and species relevant defensive behaviour. In addition, the amygdala is a major player in the forming and retrieving of emotional and fear related memories.
The brain reactions mentioned above are life savers in certain situations. If there is a threat to your life your brain will react quickly and unconsciously giving you the best chance of survival. In primitive times this brain mechanism was essential. For wild animals it still is essential. For humans today it is necessary but less essential.
When your brain senses a mild threat to your life the frontal lobe responds in a rational, human appropriate way. When the threat is major the amygdala overrides the frontal lobe, effectively switching it off taking the body into the fight or flight response.
Is it ok?
This is all well and good if the threat is mild, the reaction is acceptable and in fact occasionally beneficial. The mild feelings we now call anxiety propel you upwards giving motivation to prepare more for a job interview or work presentation. In a social situation you may be more considerate when circling the room and meet a new best friend.
When the threat is great and your fight or flight response saves your life, quickly moving away from a fast car or fleeing from a fire for example, this life saving instinct is truly lifesaving.
Difficulties occurs when your brain regards something as a threat to your life, that is in fact not a threat at all. Speaking to a new person, hosting a meeting at work, giving a large presentation, going for a walk, doing the weekly shop. Or the brain exaggerates the threat irrationally, using public transport, driving a car, crossing a bridge, going up high, walking past a pet dog. Your brain will try to save you from the experience. If it perceives the threat as strong enough your frontal lobe will be collapse as the amygdala takes over, affecting all the previous mentioned aspect of life and more (planning, predicting consequences, decision making, social behaviour, understanding information, mood regulation, impulse control, reward processing and the physical reaction to emotion).
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a way to describe the physical feelings and emotions you experience when your brain tries to save your life in a situation that is not life threatening.
When you experience a life-threatening situation, your brain wants you to run or flee. You can read more about the actual reaction of your body when you enter the fight or flight response here.
If the reaction is strong enough your frontal lobe will not be able to help you act rationally and you will find it difficult to do anything other than hide under the duvet. You will experience extreme physically reactions as your body primes to run or fight for your life. Your ability to function typically will be dependent on your brain’s perception of the danger. A milder reaction allows life to continue whilst managing the symptoms. When the feelings negatively affect your life, you have an anxiety disorder.
Mild anxiety is normal in a lot of circumstances as we navigate modern human life with an animal brain. There are various techniques that you can use to calm the feelings. If your brain gets stuck in this mode and your snippets of anxiety grow into an anxiety disorder hypnotherapy or other forms of support will be beneficial.
Research through twin studies has indicated that between 20% – 40% (a little less for generalised anxiety) of the variance in vulnerability comes from genetic factors. The remaining 60% – 80% from individual experiences and environment.
Amygdala hyperresponsiveness has been noticed as a problem. As has difficulty in the brain’s ability to evaluate, organize, and reach goals and adapt behaviour in new situations.
Low serotonin is something to consider. This can cause a problem as a result of something completely unrelated such as a tooth infection. Please read more here.
Research has found that in those with an anxiety disorder the amygdala will be overactive at rest and without conscious perception. The severity of the overactivity will depend on the size of the activity. So together we can work to calm your amygdala. Reducing your levels of anxiety to stop your brain from continually perceiving your life as a threat to your life.
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