Anxiety and the Brain: Part 1 – Neuroscience.

Neuroscience – Any or all of the sciences, such as neurochemistry and experimental psychology, which deal with the structure or function of the nervous system and brain. 

As I mentioned in a previous blog ‘Time to Science the S**t Out of this’, I have been reading up on how anxiety is created in the brain, and most importantly how you can rewire your brain.

The best book I have read about this is called ‘Rewire Your Anxious Brain, how to use the neuroscience of fear to end anxiety, panic & worry’ by Catherine M. Pittman, PhD and Elizabeth M. Karle, MLIS (below is an Amazon link if you are interested in the book).

Now, I am not scientifically minded, but I have found this subject fascinating, and this book went a long way to answering a lot of questions that I had about my mental health problems.

This is a subject that I would urge everyone to read up on; you don’t need to have a mental health problem to start appreciating it.  I recently heard a talk by Dr Shannon Irvine, PhD on how mastering thoughts, emotions and habits can help in business and everyday life.

Thinking Skeleton - Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

Dr Irvine describes the brain as “the biggest secret weapon of all time”; we all know how important it is to keep physically fit, but no one teaches us, or puts the same level of importance on looking after the brain.

People can often reach a point where they feel stuck in their lives, and Dr Irvine explains that this is because we are working off what we learnt as kids.  As kids we make decisions on how to avoid pain and create pleasure, this happens unconsciously because when we are young our brains process things much quicker.  The good news is that as adults we can consciously learn new habits through training and persistence, and it is this that can help people struggling with anxiety.

The biggest problem with mental health is that we do not talk about it; we hide the problem away and try to pretend that nothing is wrong.

Hiding - Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash

There is so much fear surrounding mental health issues and I think that is one of the main reasons why people don’t talk openly about it.  There is a very clear image of Victorian ‘Lunatic Asylums’ and some of the treatments patients were subjected to, add that to the culture of not wanting to appear weak (especially at work) and there is no wonder that people do not want to be tagged as ‘Mad’ or a bit of a ‘Loon’.

Asylum

I think a lot of the fear is because mental health problems do not seem rational, there are no obvious physical symptoms that people can relate to and it can be very random and unpredictable, especially the physical reaction.

Sometimes I feel very different to how I used to be, and that is unnerving enough for me to have to deal with let alone other people.  I had so much fear and uncertainty about what was happening when I had my first panic attacks and the reason for that was because I hadn’t been taught about conditions like anxiety and depression.  We know they exist because we all have times when we feel anxious or down, but what happens to make these feelings and reactions so much worse for certain people?  That is the question I will try to help with during this series of blogs.

The brain (like the rest of the human body) is an amazing bit of kit, and it is increasingly undervalued and neglected; understanding the power it has and how experience moulds our emotional and physical reactions goes a long way to figuring out how anxiety can be so disabling; I will also be able to reveal (with the help of scientists) why some of it does not make sense.

Human Body with Muscle - Photo by Arthur Lambillotte on Unsplash

I will give you two examples of how powerful the brain is:

The Swimmer:

Dr Irvine told the story of a swimmer (she did not say who) who used visualisation to learn a new stroke.  They did not practice in the pool, instead they visualised everything about swimming the stroke three times a day.  The visualisation included the tiniest of details including smells and feelings such as the sensation of the water.

The swimmer then went on to win a major race just by using this technique.

It does sound a bit woo woo, but there is scientific proof for this; studies have shown that visualization can improve motor-skills performance beyond the level that can be achieved through physical practice alone.

The Vietnam Veteran with PTSD (taken from Rewire your Anxious Brain):

The veteran used to experience panic attacks but then didn’t have them for a number of years.  Suddenly he started having panic attacks each morning, for no apparent reason.

After careful monitoring, he realised that the panic was starting when he showered in the morning.

He soon realised that his wife had recently changed brands of soap, and she had unknowingly changed to the same brand that the veteran had used when showering in Vietnam.

It is amazing to think that just a simple bar of soap could cause serious distress, his subconscious took over and he was completely unaware of the connection until he pieced it together.

“People don’t come preassembled, but are glued together by life.” – Joseph LeDoux

Obviously rewiring the brain is not a quick fix, especially if like me you have a lot to sort out up there, however with practise and persistence it is possible to create a new neural pathway.  Dr Irvine calls this ‘changing your story’, but we will go into that another time.

I think this is a subject that everyone can take something from, so I hope you enjoy the blogs, and find the subject as fascinating and helpful as I have.

Thank you, thank you, thank you

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