Anxiety & The Brain, Part 10: Neurotransmitters.

Have you ever wondered what controls our mood?  What makes us feel happy, sad, or afraid?

The answer is chemical messengers called NEUROTRANSMITTERS; they are key players in helping to understand anxiety, and the physical reactions associated with it.

As we learnt in my blog Anxiety & The Brain, Part 5, the brain is made up of millions of neurons, and it’s these neurons that release the neurotransmitters in a process called FIRING.  There Are different types of neurotransmitter, and the ones that get released depends on the information received from our senses, and the emotion that our brain associates with that information.

Firstly, we need to look at the different types of neurotransmitter, and the effect each one has on our body and mind.

ADRENALINE (fight or flight):

Produced in stressful situations and when our brain perceives that we are in danger.  Adrenaline tells our body to prepare for the danger by increasing the heart rate and blood flow, and makes your lungs work harder to increase the amount of oxygen sent to your muscles, which leads to a physical boost and heightened awareness.

NORADRENALINE (concentration)

This effects the attention and responding actions in the brain, it causes the blood vessels to contract, increasing blood flow.

DOPAMINE (pleasure)

Released during pleasurable activities and when your brain is expecting a reward.  It can help to reinforce cravings, which is not always good because it can lead to addiction. It works in a cycle of motivation, reward, and reinforcement.

SEROTONIN (mood)

Is released during exercise and by light exposure.  It impacts many parts of your body, from emotions to motor skills, and is considered a natural mood stabiliser.  It aids with sleep, digestion, and reducing depression and anxiety.  Serotonin is made from the essential amino acid tryptophan. This amino acid must enter your body through your diet and is commonly found in foods such as nuts, cheese, and red meat.

GABA (calming)

High levels of Gaba improve focus, and low levels produce anxiety.  Gaba calms firing nerves and decreases activity in the nervous system by blocking, or inhibiting, certain brain signals.  It also has a calming effect which helps reduce anxiety, stress, and fear.  Usually taken as a supplement but can be found in fermented foods.

ACETYLCHOLINE (learning)

Associated with memory, thinking and learning; it also plays a role in muscle movement and is also linked to attention and awakening.

GLUTAMATE (memory)

The most common neurotransmitter, Glutamate is involved in learning and memory; it also regulates the development and creation of nerve contacts.

ENDORPHINS (euphoria)

Released during excitement and exercise, they can reduce pain and increase pleasure, creating the natural ‘high’ we can feel after some activities.  They can be released in response to pain or stress.

Looking at the above list, we can begin to understand how important neurotransmitters are in our lives, especially to the way we react to stress and fear.  They don’t just work alone; they combine in a complex way, and the cocktail can be very specific to us and our unique experience.

When looking at anxiety, the diagram below shows the role that neurotransmitters play in the anxious response.

In this process, the Trigger can be anything, including an object, a sound, a smell, a taste or a texture; the neurotransmitters released depends on the emotion that our brain has associated to this information (based on past experience).

In the case of the anxious response, the trigger will be something that the brain has associated as dangerous or threatening (depending on our experience, this can be as diverse as one person sharing the same fear about teddy bears, as another person has about sharks), the neurons in the brain will release adrenaline, preparing the body for action, which will include getting the muscles ready for a fight, to run away or freeze.

If the trigger has positive emotions attached to it, let’s say someone gives you a gift that you love, then the brain will attach positive emotions to that object such as joy and happiness; each time you see the gift the neurons will release happy neurotransmitters (endorphins or dopamine); likewise, for calming triggers, our serotonin levels will rise.

“Understanding how neurons function will help you learn strategies that will allow you to rewire the circuits in your brain that create anxiety.”

Rewire Your Anxious Brain – By Catherine M. Pittman, PhD & Elizabeth M. Karle, MLIS

The brain has the ability to change (neuroplasticity), and it can learn from new experiences.  By changing the emotion associated to a trigger from negative to positive, and repeating that new positive association, the old neural pathway will become dormant, and the new ‘positive’ pathway prominent.

Understanding neurotransmitters also helps when we start looking at managing our levels of anxiety and understanding how different treatments and therapies work.

Anxiety and anti-depressant medications try to artificially alter the chemical messages in our brain; one of the main categories are Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI) which try to boost the levels of serotonin.  The problem with medication is that they can have side effects, and some people think that just taking medication is the singular answer, which it is not.

Some people find medication that works for them, so it’s not an option to completely ignore, however it makes more sense to me to try and encourage the positive neurotransmitters naturally.  The best way to do this is through lifestyle choices; exercise, meditation/mindfulness, nutrition and managing stress levels, and for some through supplements (always seek professional advice before taking supplements, especially if you’re on medication).  Even if you do take medication, it’s important to make these other lifestyle changes otherwise they won’t work.

So, when you’re thinking about your mental health, think about the neurotransmitters, especially the ones that will help raise your mood, and start trying to make conscious decisions to help boost them.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

2 thoughts on “Anxiety & The Brain, Part 10: Neurotransmitters.

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