What Causes Anxiety
There are 3 Pathways in the body and mind that anxiety is created.
Now there is an infinite amount of things that can potentially trigger someone’s stress response that can result in anxiety and everyone’s experience can be different.
For some people their anxiety may have started as the result of some obvious significant traumatic experience in their life but for others there may be no obvious reason for their anxiety at all. No matter what the trigger, anxiety is activated in the brain through 3 different routes or as I call them Pathways.
Three Parts to Our Brain
You see we have three distinct parts to our brain.
Our neo-cortex which is the thinking part of our brain that we would recognise as the ridged walnut shaped structure from pictures, and the more primitive parts; the Limbic System or midbrain, which is the emotional centre of our brain and then there’s the oldest part, known as the reptilian brain or lizard brain. And located in the midbrain as part of the limbic system we find the amygdala. And it is the amygdala where the decision to activate the stress response is made. And the amygdala is constantly taking in information from different parts of the brain and assessing it and attempting to determine if it should trigger the body’s stress response. If it perceives something as a threat it will activate the stress response that for some results in anxiety and all the accompanying symptoms and side effects.
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And it is doing this constantly in a part of your brain that is beneath your conscious awareness, meaning that you do not even realise that your brain is doing this. Constantly sifting through the information that it receives looking for potential threats.
And although your brain is the most sophisticated thing in the known universe there are only three ways that information arrives at the amygdala for analysis. And these are what I term the three pathways.
The Conscious Pathway – Neo-Cortex Based Anxiety
The conscious pathway, the subconscious pathway and the bio-feedback pathway. And while your anxiety continues as the result of all three pathways, more often than not one of those pathways is for you the more dominant source of your anxiety.
First of all let’s look at the conscious pathway. This pathway is through the most modern part of the human brain, the neo-cortex. The neo-cortex is where our logical, critical, creative, analytical and strategic thinking happens. When you suffer from anxiety you may find that it is very difficult to switch off your racing mind. You might have a constant internal voice judging you, talking negatively to you or telling you that others are judging you and making you paranoid. It might be only able to see the negative in any situation – catastrophizing every situation or have you suffering from obsessive and intrusive thoughts.
These thoughts are then fed down to the amygdala in the limbic system (the emotional centre of our brain) via the conscious pathway where the amygdala takes one look at these stressful thoughts and decides to activate your stress response and your anxiety flares up. That is the first pathway.
The Subconscious Pathway – Amygdala Based Anxiety
The second pathway is the subconscious pathway. This pathway is more insidious because it is beneath our conscious awareness. If we have experienced a trauma at some point in our lives this will have been noted by the amygdala. And if that trauma was perceived to be severe enough the amygdala will be constantly on the look-out for anything that might indicate that it might happen again. It will become hypersensitive to anything that it believes even looks similar. To do this it takes in information through all of our sense sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch. If any of those or a combination of them look anything like the previous trauma, it will activate the stress response.
And as all of this information is coming in through our senses subconsciously, we aren’t even aware that this is happening. And as the amygdala triggers the stress response without our conscious awareness either. This means that we can have our stress response and the resulting anxiety triggered and we may not even know why. You may not even know what has triggered it and the first time you know that your anxiety has been triggered is when you start to feel all the nasty side effects of your stress response being activated.
You might be going about your business when all of a sudden your anxiety strikes with no obvious or apparent reason. This is the second pathway – the subconscious pathway.
The Bio-Feedback Pathway – What Fires Together – Wires Together!
The third pathway is the bio-feedback pathway. This pathway relies on feedback from the rest of your body
You see when anxiety strikes there are some physical symptoms that you feel, like the ones I mentioned already; racing heart, breathlessness, stomach aches etc. These be simultaneously both the symptoms and the triggers of your anxiety. I know that sounds contradictory but think of it this way, if these symptoms happen regularly when you have an anxious episode your mind links these two things bi-directionally – the bodily sensations and the anxiety attack.
This is a neoroscientific theory known as Hebbs Law and is often summarised as; “that which fires together – wires together”.
What this means is that not only does your anxiety attack result in the physical symptoms, but if you have any of the physical symptoms on their own, this can result in inadvertently triggering your anxiety.
Through your nervous system the amygdala monitors everything that is going on in all of the organs in your body, constantly taking feedback from your whole body and determining if that feedback suggests that there is imminent danger and a need to trigger your stress response. So just having a racing heart on its own could bring on your anxiety!
This means that your body and mind can be tricked in to anxiety because some everyday activities that you do, imitate or mimic some of the physical symptoms of anxiety and as a result your amygdala inadvertently delivers everything else that you expect with anxiety.
And those are the 3 pathways that anxiety is created in the body and mind.
The conscious pathway, the subconscious pathway and the bio-feedback pathway.
And this is the same for everyone because this is the way that the human brain works on a neuroscientific basis.