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.
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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