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Anxiety & Brain Networks

Anxiety & Brain Networks

Anxiety might be a result of malfunctioning brain networks, but a few simple practices can help.

Anxiety is a mental disorder marked by ruminating thoughts and difficulty dealing with emotional events. It plagues most individuals at some point but, for many, persists indefinitely.

Now, science is showing that the many facets of anxiety might be a result of miscommunicating networks of brain regions, making treatment challenging.

To come, we’ll discuss what anxiety is and how a few simple practices might provide some relief on your path towards an anxiety-free lifestyle.

What Is Anxiety?

While anxiety is often associated with fear, it’s a separate and slightly different mental state. Fear, is a specific and acute response associated with a stimulus (1).

If, for example, you were greeted by a mother grizzly bear on a morning hike, you would become fearful. But once the threat passes, that fear also diminishes.

Anxiety is instead a mental state of thinking about the potential of a fearful or consequential event occurring. It’s a thought loop of weighing events or actions and their potential outcomes, despite often being unfounded (1).

Unfortunately, though, anxiety is often much more than thoughts alone.

In addition to a general feeling of unease and low self-worth, many experience symptoms like an uneasy stomach, sweating, nervousness, and overall fatigue. Not to mention, many individuals that experience chronic anxiety often fall victim to some form of depression (2).

The reality is that anxiety often provokes similar feelings to that of stress, but every individual will have a different response.

While the initial experience with the bear in the example before invoked fear, the practice of ruminating over the experience and expecting it to occur on all future hikes would instead be anxiety.

Of course, anxiety might not be a result of any single event and can manifest out of nowhere, making treatment difficult. Still, scientists believe that anxiety may be a result of some brain regions and networks functioning differently compared to brains of individuals without anxiety.

Anxiety might not be a result of any single event and can manifest out of nowhere.

Anxiety might not be a result of any single event and can manifest out of nowhere.

What Is Anxiety In The Brain?

Despite extensive research, the exact process that provokes continued anxiety remains elusive.

Associated with fear and emotional memory processing, a structure in the brain known as the amygdala has been marked as the culprit behind anxiety. But now, the disorder appears to be more complex (3, 4).

This realization, however, isn’t entirely surprising since there are many possible reasons for anxiety to manifest.

Conditions such as PTSD, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder have been associated with anxiety, but it’s entirely possible for symptoms to appear as a result of any traumatic experience or issue like chronic stress, addiction, and even eating disorders, (5-8).

Developing science in this field is suggesting that chronic anxiety is instead the result of networks of brain regions interacting improperly, rather than a result of only one or two regions malfunctioning.

Developing science in this field is suggesting that chronic anxiety is instead the result of networks of brain regions interacting improperly, rather than a result of only one or two regions malfunctioning.

Since anxiety can be associated with a number of different experiences, this makes sense.

The default mode network, for example, includes structures such as the anterior cingulate cortex and prefrontal cortex and appears to lack proper communication in anxious individuals (4).

Disruption in this network could explain the inability to properly process emotional situations in many of those with severe anxiety (4).

This network, however, is just one of many that might contribute to anxiety.

As it turns out, different networks malfunctioning might be responsible for unique aspects of anxiety such as the inability to recognize irrationality, increased sensitivity to errors in judgment or action, and the inability to work through emotions (4).

Clearly, anxiety can be challenging to overcome, but a few basic practices might provide some relief.

Helpful Tips For Dealing With Anxiety

While in the most severe cases, anxiety treatment should involve the aid of a therapist, doctor, and perhaps pharmaceuticals, a few practices exist that could be valuable in treating anxiety-related symptoms.

Exercise Regularly

Regular physical activity reduces and possibly prevents depressive and anxiety-specific symptoms (9, 10).

One possible mechanism here is the effect of exercise on the SNS or, sympathetic nervous system (10-15).

The SNS exists to promote survival by increasing respiration and blood flow, focusing attention, and elevating stress hormones. With anxiety, this system is overactive and develops into a chronic stress response (16-18).

Fortunately, regular exercise, and even yoga can help modulate SNS activity, potentially reducing symptom severity when experiencing anxious episodes (10, 14, ross, 19, 20).

Additionally, since exercise is stressful, some researchers believe that regular exposure can change how we manage other stressful situations, also potentially reducing symptom severity (14).

Regular physical activity reduces and possibly prevents depressive and anxiety-specific symptoms.

Use Extinction Principles

Many studies testing anxiety use a principle called conditioning to observe how anxiety influences the brain (21).

Researchers present subjects with a stimulus, such as a picture that invokes no response like a beautiful landscape, and then pair that image with something unpleasant, like a loud sound or shock.

After repeated exposure, the brain becomes conditioned to pairing the two stimuli together. Since the image is connected to the unpleasant event, just viewing the picture will create an anxious response, even without the unpleasant stimulus (21).

But repeatedly viewing the image without the unpleasant stimulus results in a process known as extinction, where the connection between the two stimuli no longer exists.

With chronic anxiety, it appears that extinction doesn’t happen properly (22).

Instead of recognizing that a perceived threat no longer exists or that a thought is irrational, we ruminate over the possibility of our worst fears coming to fruition.

Despite being a complicated process, being more mindful of when your anxious triggers don’t result in catastrophe could be beneficial for limiting your overall anxiety.

When you become anxious over things you know or believe to be irrational, take note of those feelings, whether through talking or writing, and analyze the result.

When you become anxious over things you know or believe to be irrational, take note of those feelings, whether through talking or writing, and analyze the result.

Did your anxious thoughts result in catastrophe, or were they unfounded?

By repeatedly recognizing that no threat exists, you can potentially overcome many of your anxiety triggers.

Talk Through Symptoms With Someone Else

Despite being one of the harder challenges to come with mental health issues, talking with someone about what you’re experiencing might be the best action you can take.

In my experience, I’ve found that talking through my issues allows others to provide a relatively unbiased insight into the problems I’m experiencing.

Sometimes, a different perspective to push you out of your thought loop can show you the errors or irrationality of your thoughts. Often, having the confirmation that these thoughts are out of line is the best gift you can receive when lost in worry.

Talk with Someone

Talking with someone about what you’re experiencing might be the best action you can take.

Final Thoughts

Emerging research is showing that anxiety and its many branches is a product of different networks of brain regions malfunctioning. Because these networks and their communication can vary from one individual to the next, treatment can be challenging.

Fortunately, practices like exercise, being mindful of anxious tendencies, and talking through issues with others are accessible by almost anyone with any level of anxiety.

While therapy and perhaps medication might be the best answer in the most severe cases, using these practices could potentially reduce symptom severity associated with your anxiety.

By Sam Besiak

References

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  3. Zhao, Z., Yao, S., Li, K., Sindermann, C., Zhou, F., Zhao, W., … & Becker, B. (2019). Real-time functional connectivity-informed neurofeedback of amygdala-frontal pathways reduces anxiety. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics, 88(1), 5-15.
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  7. Lüthi, A., & Lüscher, C. (2014). Pathological circuit function underlying addiction and anxiety disorders. Nature neuroscience, 17(12), 1635.
  8. Godart, N. T., Flament, M. F., Lecrubier, Y., & Jeammet, P. (2000). Anxiety disorders in anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa: co-morbidity and chronology of appearance. European Psychiatry, 15(1), 38-45.
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  10. Stubbs, B., Vancampfort, D., Rosenbaum, S., Firth, J., Cosco, T., Veronese, N., … & Schuch, F. B. (2017). An examination of the anxiolytic effects of exercise for people with anxiety and stress-related disorders: A meta-analysis. Psychiatry Research, 249, 102-108.
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