Anxiety and the Brain, Part 6: Circuitry

Circuitry is the connection between neurons, the basic building blocks of the brain, that we explored previously.

“Neurons that fire together wire together” – Carla Shatz

We learnt that neurons FIRE, which is where a positive charge travels from the receiving dendrites of the neuron, through the cell body, all the way to the axon at the other end.  In order for the neurons to build connections between themselves, one neuron must be firing at the same time as another.

When firing together the connection between the neurons is strengthened, and eventually a pattern of circuitry develops in which the activation of one neuron causes the other to activate.

More neurons can be connected to these neurons in the same way, and if they fire together then a whole set of connected neurons is created.

Why is this important?  It is the building and the working together of these circuits that store memories, create emotional reactions, initiate thought processes, and produce actions; basically this is where the negative emotions that create anxiety responses are stored.

This is where we now start to look at how the anxious brain can be rewired.

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

Changing the neural circuitry of the brain involves changing the activation patterns so that new connections develop between neurons, in turn developing new circuits.  Changes in the brain or learning can occur as a result of neurons establishing new connections and circuitry.

Our brain is specific to us; two people may have had similar experiences but our brain has been formed by our own unique experience, it can therefore be changed as a result of continued experiences.

So, how can the neurons make new connections and circuits?

Thought - Photo by Ben White on Unsplash




Even imagining performing behaviours can cause changes in circuitry; I’m not sure if I shared this with you before, but Dr Shannon Irvine gave the example of a swimmer who learnt a new stroke through visualisation alone.

Three times a day the swimmer would visualise everything about the stroke from the physical motion to the smell and feel of the water.  It took 21 days for this to be stored as a new memory, and even generated new muscle growth.

The important thing to understand is that the brain usually works on the subconscious which is developed by the past; if you have negative associations to certain things then the brain will continue to follow the negative circuit; it is these past negative memories that are the anxious triggers.

Despite working off the circuits of the past, the brain remains flexible and it is capable of change throughout life.

If you want to change the anxiety you feel and experience, you need to change the neural connections that lead to the anxiety responses.

Memories can be made in both the cortex and the amygdala both of which have their own, separate, memory making system.  The amygdala may make memories that the cortex is not even aware of, which can be a big problem when dealing with anxiety.  Some studies have shown that amygdala-based memories are longer lasting than cortex-based memories (LeDoux 2000)

The existence of the two separate memory making systems helps to explain further why you may experience anxiety in situations without any conscious memory or understanding of why the situation produces anxiety.

Just because your amygdala has an emotional memory of an event doesn’t mean that your cortex remembers the same event.  Because we rely on our cortex memory, we will have difficulty in remembering the event and therefore making the connection between that and the anxiety responses we experience.

It sounds an impossible task to try and change something that you don’t appear to have any control over such as the amygdala, especially if you can’t remember the events it is using to make memories; the trick is to learn the Language of the amygdala, which is what we will look at next.

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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