March 28, 2020
6 min read

To Understand Your Anxiety, You Need to Understand Your Brain

To Understand Your Anxiety, You Need to Understand Your Brain: A fun way to look at your brain:

1.The limbic brain (The Drama Department): Your emotional brain. The limbic brain systematically connects your senses (i.e., olfactory cortex) with memories, emotions, and narratives, and gets results by your reactions (fight, flight, flee, and bond; Sapolsky, 2003). The limbic brain loves drama!

2.The thalamus (The Producer): The thalamus receives and passess sensory and motor information to the cerebral cortex (the cerebral cortex is divided into four lobes: frontal, parietal, temporal, occipital which is needed to process sensory information, 2003). The Producer oversees the passing of information to keep you alert. If the thalamus is damaged, you can go into a coma (2003). “You need me,” says thalamus, “to keep you moving (running from danger) or to stay alert (i.e., stay conscious, pay attention to detail) so you can stay in the game!”

3.The amygdala (The Director): The amygdala is responsible for emotional reactivity via fear or anxiety. These reactions include fight, flee, or freeze. The amygdala is an almond shaped part of the brain involved in emotional-decision making (Murray, Izquierdo, Malkova, 2009)

4.The cingulate gyrus (The Assistant): The cingulate gyrus has a very important role in the limbic system because it assists with emotion regulation, speech and voicialization, emotional bonding and attachment, and body posture (Vogt, 2005). The amygdala may be about fighting and fleeing, but the cingulate gyrus is about bonding (2005). “I voice my concerns,” says cingulate because “I work with thalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus to process emotions, make emotional connections, and/or formulate a plan... My objective is to support amygdala's agenda or my agenda. Your affect, body posture, tone of voice, and speech will either support amygdalas emotional intention (fight or flee response) or my emotional intention (bond response).”

5.The olfactory cortex (The Conductor): The olfactory cortex organizes sensory input and helps process emotions, using your memories (Neuroscience News, 2017). The sense of smell is associated with positive or negative memories (2017). “I can orchestrate beautiful or negative memories by how something or someone smells,” says olfactory.

6. The left-brain interpreter (The Writing Department): The left hemisphere is the part of your brain that creates meaning from life events (Gazzaniga, 1988). “I am a great storyteller,” says the left-brain interpreter. “Every life event you experience comes with an interpretation (a narrative)... it doesn't matter if it's subjective because it's your story,” adds left-brain. The left-brain interpreter connects the story with an emotion then files it in the long term memory (hippocampus, 1988).

7. The hypothalamus (The Chemical Messenger): The hypothalamus regulates your emotional responses (1988). “Don’t kill the messenger,” says hypothalamus. “I produce chemicals like choritsal so you can run for your life.

8.The hippocampus (Learning and Memory Department or the Library): The hippocampus indexes and stores your memories (aans.org). “I learn and store information in the data bank,” says hippocampus.

9. The fornix (Personal Messenger for the Librarian): Fronix has a bundle of nerve fibers that acts as the primary outgoing pathway from the hippocampus (aans.org). It is associated with episodic memory (long term memory that involves specific events, situations, and experiences, aans.org).

Summary:

Please imagine... (Past event happens): A historical event happens to you (you are a 10-year old child. You did not get invited to a birthday party). You have an emotional response (you are sad or mad (a universal emotion). You feel an emotion + a narrative. Your left-brain interpreter creates a story to the event (“you are not cool,” says the left-brain interpreter… only cool kids get invited to birthday parties”). This event + narrative + emotional experience gets filed in your hippocampus (the library).

Fast forward… (Future event arrives): A present event happens to you. You are up for a promotion. You discover one of your coworkers receives a promotion and two of your coworkers receive a bonus. You may receive a bonus, but no promotion (reasons are unknown... yet)... Within milliseconds your limbic brain scans for a threat with the help of her friends:

“I found a winner,” says olfactory cortex; the drama department (limbic system) has a great library called the hippocampus... I retrieved a memory thanks to fornix,” says olfactory. Hippocampus retrieves the memory: You were 10-years-old and you did not get invited to a birthday party. “ouch... that hurt your feelings,” says the left-brain interpreter and “today, your boss may not give you a bonus and your coworker is definitely getting a promotion. Limbic confirms the threat. “I am going to sound the alarm,” says thalamus and wake up amygdala.” “I support you amygdala,” says, cingulate gyru and hypothalamus... “together we will get you to flee or fight. Amygdala chimes in..., “you are going to experience anxiety which in turn will be expressed via anger because I will project the story the left-brain interpreter told me about your rejection as a 10-year old child. “This way,” amygdala snarled, you can choose to fight with your boss or just quit your job.”

In summary: the limbic brain judges a threat then alarms the amygdala. Next, the amygdala gets activated (“oh, oh, sound the alarm”, says amygdala. “The lion is going to get us”). The amygdala alarms the hypothalamus which sounds the sympathetic nervous system and releases chemicals in your body (Murray, Izquierdo, Malkova, 2009). Your sympathetic nervous system (your body's response to danger) sends signals through the autonomic nerves to increase your heart rate and breathing (Reader, 2015). When your sympathetic nervous system is activated via hypothalamus; your cortisol hormones increase, your digestion gets suppressed, and more (Yuste, Rafael, Church, George, 2014). Why? So you can focus on the threat and choose your battle: fight, flight, freeze and bond thanks to cingulate gyru, but today we are focusing on anxiety and less on bonding.

Tips:

1. Observe your anxiety as a symptom. Differentiate your anxiety from your personality. Treat the anxiety. You are beautiful as you are.

2. Use your 5 senses to bring you back to the present.

4. Practice acceptance – acceptance is essential. What you resist persists. Acceptance is not defeat.

5. Take deep belly breaths – it calms the nervous system.

References:

American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Anatomy of the Brain.https://www.aans.org/en

/Patients/Neurosurgical-Conditions-and-Treatments/Anatomy-of-the-Brain

Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2010-2020). Facts and Statistics. AdA.Org https://adaa.org/about-adaa/pr...,of%20those%20suffering%20receive%20treatment.

Gazzaniga, M. (1988). Mind Matters: How the mind & brain interact to create our conscious lives. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Morton, S. (February, 2020). The Connection Between Childhood Trauma and Generalized Anxiety Disorder.PsychCentral.https://psychcentral.com/blog/...

-and-generalized-anxiety-disorder#1

Murray E. A, Izquierdo A, Malkova L., (2009). Amygdala function in positive reinforcement. The Human Amygdala. Guilford Press.

Neuroscience News. (August, 2017). How the emotions of others Influence our olfactory sense. Neuroscience News.

Reader, S. M. (2015). Causes of individual differences in animal exploration and search. Top. Cogn. Sci. 7, 451–468.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2003). Stress and Plasticity in the Limbic System. Neurochemical Research. 11, 1735–1742.

Yuste, Rafael, Church, George M. (March, 2014). The new century of the brain. Scientific American. 3, 38–45.

Vogt A. B., (July, 2005). Pain and emotion interactions in subregions of the cingulate gyrus. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 6, 533-544