Anxiety and the Brain, Part 3: The Cortex Pathway

In part 2 of this series we looked at the basics of how anxiety is created in the brain, and highlighted the two main parts of the brain that cause anxiety and the physical responses we experience when feeling anxious.

In parts 3 and 4 we will look at the two key parts or pathways (the Cortex and the Amygdala) in more detail.

The Cortex:

The cortex is split into two halves, or HEMISPHERES; quite simply, the left and the right.  These hemispheres are then divided into smaller sections called LOBES.  Each of these lobes has a different function; for example, processing vision, hearing, and other information collected by the senses.  The lobes then put all of this information together and this allows you to perceive the world around you.

Most importantly (where anxiety is concerned) the cortex attaches meaning and memories to these perceptions.

The cortex also contributes to changing your responses to danger; which can be really useful, otherwise you would react to every bit of perceived danger in the same way, no matter how big or small.  It is this ability to change your response that helps you to decide not to attack your boss when he/she is having a go at you about something, or if you think you are going to get sacked.

Before reaching the cortex, the sensory information goes through another part of the brain, called the THALAMUS.  This is like the main sorting office of the brain; when the thalamus receives information from the senses it literally sorts them out, and sends them to the various lobes of the brain so that they can be processed and interpreted.

The Frontal Lobes.

Understanding the frontal lobes of the cortex is really important in understanding how anxiety is created in the brain.

The frontal lobes are located behind the forehead and the eyes, and they are the largest set of lobes in the human brain (they are much larger than those found in most other animals).

Eyes - Photo by Alexandru Zdrobău on Unsplash

When all of the other lobes in the cortex have received the information from the thalamus, they then pass it on to the frontal lobes; this is where all of that information is collected and processed together, and we then get a full picture of the world around us.  This then means we can respond to what we are seeing, smelling, touching or hearing.

The frontal lobes also help us to anticipate the potential outcomes, or results of a situation; they help us to plan our actions, initiate a response or responses, and they use the feedback we receive from the world to stop or alter our behaviour.

Amazing as this all sounds, there is a down side, and that is that these capacities of the frontal lobes lay the groundwork for anxiety to develop.

It is the ability of the frontal lobes to anticipate and interpret situations that can lead to anxiety.  Anticipation can lead to another common cortex based process that we are all aware of, and that is WORRY.

Worry - Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

Worry, fear and anxiety are created when our cortex anticipates a negative outcome to a situation.  It is the thoughts and images created by the cortex that provokes these responses.

Everyone’s cortex works differently, some are brilliant at creating worry.  When you imagine a long list of negative outcomes to a situation?  That’s the cortex at work in a very negative way.

“Some of the most creative people are also the most anxious because their over-activity gives them the ability to dwell on extremely frightening thoughts and images.”

If your pattern of worrying is serious enough that it interferes with your daily life, you may be diagnosed with GENERALISED ANXIETY DISORDER.

Another type of anxiety disorder can be created by the cortex; if the frontal lobes create obsessive thoughts or doubts that won’t go away, and you get to the point where you spend hours each day focusing on them, then you may have OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER.

Obsessions can sometimes lead a person to create elaborate rituals that must be carried out in order to reduce anxiety.

If you think that you may have an anxiety disorder, the best thing to do is to go to your GP or doctor.  I am not a medical professional; what I am writing is a very simplified explanation of the processes involving the brain and anxiety.  It is so that you can have a basic understanding of what is going on.  Sometimes just having that understanding can be a big help, and can itself reduce worry, fear and anxiety about why you react the way you do.

Remember; anxiety and worry are normal responses that make us human; however, if you feel overly anxious, or worry to a point that it is affecting your daily life, you need to seek professional help, don’t just struggle through.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Referenced: Rewire Your Anxious Brain – how to use the neuroscience of fear to end anxiety, panic & worry.  By Catherine M. Pittman, PhD & Elizabeth M. Karle, MLIS

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