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How Your Neurons Make You A Nervous Wreck (and how to rewire them)For far too many people, being anxious, nervous, and worried, has become a way of life. It’s just the norm. Anxiety disorders are chronic, disabling conditions that are seen across the world in epidemic proportions.

Globally, anxiety disorders were the sixth leading cause of disability in 2010. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults or 18 percent of the population in 2005. A study by the University of Queensland Australia involving 480,000 people in 91 countries in 2012 found that clinical anxiety affected around ten percent of people in North America, Western Europe, and Australia/New Zealand, about eight percent in the Middle East, and six percent in Asia.

Anxiety starts in your brain with your thoughts and can manifest into physical symptoms, including digestive disorders, memory loss, headaches, chest pain, numbness, dizziness, and more.

At the most basic level, your thoughts are nothing more than electrical signals traveling through your head from neuron to neuron. One neuron activates the next, and it may wake up a few thousand more and so on and so on. Neurons that repeatedly fire in sequence become physically connected as a pathway in your brain. This basic premise of neuroscience: “Neurons that fire together, wire together” known as Hebb’s Law, explains how your brain changes its form and function, called neuroplasticity, based on your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and experiences.

Your life literally sculpts your brain in this way. Through associative learning, conditioned from your environment as you grow up, neutral thoughts and events get associated with fears and anxiety, which may initially have nothing to do with each other, but become connected in your neural web to produce an anxious brain and a nervous you.

How Your Brain Learns To Be Anxious

Your brain learns, through a process called conditioning, to continually adapt your behavior in an attempt to be better suited to survive in its environment. In classical conditioning, your brain learns to associate two stimuli, such as in Pavlov’s well-known experiments with dogs. Pavlov, who was actually studying digestion, paired the sound of a bell with the dogs being presented food, which caused them to salivate. Pretty soon, he noticed that just the sound of the bell had the dogs drooling. The dog’s brains had been conditioned to physically connect the sound of a bell with food in a neural pathway.

Now, Pavlov’s dog scenario learning makes sense, but your brain doesn’t care if the pairing is logical or not, as demonstrated in the controversial “Little Albert” experiments. Scientist John B. Watson conditioned a young child, dubbed Little Albert, to fear a white rat by pairing the rat with a loud, scary noise over and over. Watson then demonstrated that Albert’s fear transferred to other white furry objects, such as a dog, a bunny, and a fur coat. In this case, poor Little Albert’s brain had wired white and furry with fear.

Classical conditioning happens primarily beneath conscious awareness. The conditioned response in classical conditioning (for example, the cravings you might experience when seeing a chocolate cake) cannot be suppressed at will and are involuntary. You can suppress your behavior but not your body’s response.

In a second kind of learning, operant conditioning, your brain learns to associate your behavior with consequences, good or bad. A behavior is strengthened when followed by a reinforcing reward and diminished when followed by a negative reward. For example, operant conditioning is at work when a kid says please to get a cookie, or a seal balances a ball on its nose to get a juicy sardine, or when the car stops that annoying beeping when you fasten your seat belt.

In everyday life, you are continually being conditioned in both ways, and as you learn, your behavior is reinforced, shaped, and refined by your environment and simultaneously influenced by your thoughts, feelings, and memories. Your brain changes as a result. Mother Nature was kind enough to program your brain with certain fears at birth to ensure your survival, but you pack on many more neurosis, learned from the world around you, the people in your life, and your experiences.

Unlearning Anxiety

If a neuron fires and isn’t followed by the activation of subsequent neurons, the connection between them weakens. Eventually, your brain breaks the associations, carving new neural pathways, which has been shown to successfully treat phobias, anxiety disorders, and PTSD.

In the blog, The Battle In Your Brain, I write:

Every minute of every day there’s a battle going on in your brain — a battle for cortical real estate. Your experiences, behaviours, emotions, and even your thoughts are constantly, literally changing and shaping your brain.”

You have a use or lose it brain. Any unused connections go dormant to free up resources needed to strengthen those connections that are used most often. Neuroplasticity is competitive, and functioning areas of the brain not receiving any stimuli will be taken over. In experiments where participants were blindfolded, their visual cortices started reorganizing themselves to process sound in just two days!

For example, if you’re bitten by a dog when you’re younger, dog may get paired with pain in your brain, and you might end up with a fear of dogs. However, if you are exposed to a friendly dog multiple times without your pain neurons activating, the connection between the two disappears, and you can enjoy a pooch smooch like anyone else.

You can retrain your brain to not be worried, anxious, or reactive by repeatedly associating positive, calm, safe feelings and thoughts with material that is upsetting or anxiety-producing for you. In his book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Rick Hanson likens this process to pulling weeds and planting flowers in the garden of your mind. With time, dedicated repetition, and neuroplasticity, you can actually change the neuronal pathways in your brain.

Watch this fun video for a simplified, interactive explanation of how anxiety gets wired and unlinked in your brain: Neurotic Neurons.

My Real Life Example Of Retraining My Brain

In my 18-year marriage, my ex-husband held all the power and control. In the years following our divorce, he harassed me legally as he drug me in and out of court for a decade with false allegations of endangering the children, cohabitation, and more made-up garbage. I learned to fear him and whatever he might do next. Just upon seeing a message from him pop up in my email inbox, my heart would start pounding, my breathing would speed up, and that dreaded anxious, worried feeling would flood over me. My body was conditioned to exhibit fear just upon seeing mail from him.

As the years passed, I began to live more mindfully, gain mental and emotional strength, and learn how to respond differently to him. It literally took years, but I was eventually able to not fearfully knee-jerk react to his antics and could consciously and deliberately choose my response according to who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live my life. (See blog: Responding Rather Than Reacting)

While I was in the process of growing, it would frustrate me to no end because my heart would still pound out of my chest upon just getting an email from him. My body would automatically have the conditioned fear response that my brain and body had learned throughout the relationship. I felt like my body was betraying me while, in my head, I knew better and remained calm.  My body still exhibited the conditioned fear response, but I repeatedly inserted conscious, calm thought, and behavior. Eventually, I broke the stubborn neuronal connections and formed healthier, empowered pathways in my brain.

By understanding how our brains work to produce our attitudes, feelings, and behavior, we all have the power to change our neurons and lives for the better.

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  1. Love the idea of retraining the brain Debbie. We have all been conditioned from childhood and definitely need to be able to move into a space of choice about how we respond to life and it’s ups and downs. 🙂

  2. Ash Stevens Reply

    When you look at the conditioned response, it becomes clear how we literally create our reality. We immediately jump into battle mode and throw on all the armor we need to fight and deflect blows — we’ve fought this war before so we want to be prepared for it.

    I’ve actually found this to be very harmful because it narrows my focus and perspective and puts me on the defense. I’ll read a message and interpret it one way, but when I go back to this same message days or even hours later it’s as if the curtains have been drawn and I have a completely different interpretation of it. It’s all a matter of mind…

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  4. Pardeep Arora Reply

    Hi Debbie,
    I have recently subscribed to your blog. I suffered a brain injury during my childhood, due to which I am facing various problems. I am in my thirties but I am not able to keep my job, although, I have worked with 2 companies in the past, and have spent 3 years with each of them but my life was not easy. I can understand that this information would not relate to what’s being discussed, but as I can learn that you have battled your way through your brain injury, I found it appropriate to discuss my concerns here.
    Looking forward for your suggestions.

    • Pardeep,

      I can’t speak to your case spefically, which I know nothing about, nor am I a medical professional. However, I can tell you that the brain is capable of change and improvement at any age and long after an injury. I would encourage you to read articles on my website and Norman Doidg’e book “The Brain That Changes Itself.” Either of my books (listed on the right sidebar of this page) also tell how to better your brain. My memoir, Sex, Suicide, and Serotonin details what I did to heal from my injury. Please know that with consistent directed effort and time, change is possible. All the best to you.

      • Pardeep Arora Reply

        Thanks for your response, Debbie. I had completed half of Norman Doidge’s book 2 months back. Besides,I came across your blog while searching for some answers back then; from that time onwards, I been reading the articles on your blog.

        It’s so annoying at times to know that the abilities that come naturally to anyone, I have to work on those abilities and make a part of my regular habits.

        Looking forward for your articles to make further improvements.

    • Lisa Dobbie Reply

      Pardeep, please look into vision therapy. You will understand once you read up on it and how it helps people recover from brain damage.


  5. Well I read lot of metaphysical stuff, and those people have mentioned these things that are now confirmed by sciences. Happy I found your website.

  6. I really appreciated the science and practicality of this article; thank you Debbie for sharing the fruit of the labor of your struggle with us!

    It’s amazing to me how God created our minds to be able to heal and to be able to be renewed “Ephesians 4:23 (KJV) And be renewed in the spirit of your mind;”

    In RU (Reformers Unanimous) we learn the cycle of trigger / thought / craving / action. Your article perfectly shows the science behind this destructive pattern and, thankfully, the way to rewire the mind to arrive at a productive, positive place instead!

    I look forward to reading your book and sharing elements of it with our RU group.

    Thank you and God bless you! I’m sorry to.hear about the pain of your past (and I know how that feels) but am thankful to hear of your post I’ve journey and your passion to share it with all.of us!

    • Thank you for your kind message, James. The pain of my past made me who I am today. So, I have no regrets. I hope you find the book just as useful. All the best to you. 🙂

      • You’re welcome, Debbie! And please excuse my typos! My last thought was supposed to read:
        I’m sorry to hear about the pain of your past (and I know how that feels) but am thankful to hear of the fruit of your journey and your passion to share it with all of us!

        Thanks again 🙂

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  10. Debbie, Thanks for sharing your personal experience. It’s so inspiring and really shows us it’s possible to break the cycle of fear and anxiety. It’s interesting how our body still responds with fear even after we’ve begun to make a shift in our head. The body is probably the last to get on board! But knowing this, we won’t feel discouraged.

  11. Great information here, Debbie. This line speaks to me, “Behavior is strengthened when followed by a reinforcing reward and diminished when followed by a negative reward.” When we are trying to change ourselves or help someone else change, it helps to remember that a reinforcing reward can move the process along. We think of reinforcement as only for pets or small children, but it can be helpful for anyone. Thanks for this enlightening article.

    • I’m glad you found it helpful, Cathy. How habits work and are reinforced – or not – is so important to take into account when dealing with addiction.

  12. I used to have the same kinds of visceral reactions in my body when I saw messages from my mother. It took a few years of complete disconnection from her and reprogramming my internal responses before my body and mind stopped flipping out at the mere thought of some communication from her. Mindfulness has been incredibly helpful in transforming negative connections by allowing me to look at things more objectively and make conscious choices about how I want to respond. Your article covers it all!

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