Anxiety Disorders and Neurobiology

There are both approach and avoidance circuits in the brain. The guide for the approach centers seems to be the left amygdala. So when we are looking around at the coffee shop, it is the left amygdala that seems to be leading the show. The amygdala receives input from all the sensory information available to us in the coffee shop. It receives information directly through the thalamus providing it a ‘quick read’ on potentially dangerous stimuli. For instance, the sound of a glass breaking can cause a startled response. This is generated by the output area of the amygdala to the sympathetic center in the midbrain, the locus ceruleus. This allows us to begin responding before we are even consciously aware we have received any information. It also receives information indirectly through the various cortical centers after they have processed the sensory information further. This allows refinement of our emotional response. In this example, we quickly realize we are in a coffee shop (Hippocampus) and that frequently someone will drop a glass and that we are likely quite safe. With this realization, a signal is sent to the GABA receptors that quiet the signals between the input areas and the output areas of the amygdala.

The amygdala is more than a mere stimulus response circuit. It is actually a part of our learning circuits. Specifically, it learns how it should respond to all stimuli. It asks, “What is the biological relevance of this stimulus in this situation and this time?” ‘Biological relevance’ determines the emotion that is tagged to any particular stimulus. So the cute kids we see coming into the coffee shop may be tagged with the emotion, ‘aww’. As you can see, we have many emotions available to any situation. There is an immediate partial response that has been learned from previous similar situations.

There is also a more fully processed emotional response. This is not available until we have processed all of the information around us and then ‘decide’ how we want to feel about it.

Basically we have two main types responses that we need to consider when we talk about anxiety. First is the quick previously programed automated response and the second involves the delayed, more thoughtful response. The circuitry for the delayed response involves further processing of the sensory information. The circuitry for the immediate response only involves the cortex in as much as a moderated immediate response can be learned. Much of the learning seems to occur in the amygdala itself.

How does this Neurobiological Information Relate to Anxiety Disorders?

When we suffer from anxiety disorders, we become generally anxious about everything we think about in the learning circuits of the amygdala. They tend to become overactive and send an excessive number of signals of anxiety to the sympathetic centers of our midbrain. So what can we do? There are medications that serve to help the modulating circuits of the amygdala through either serotonin or GABA receptors that may help.

First, we can reassert the dominance of our higher cortical centers that have been chronically beaten down by the endless, senseless signals causing us to be anxious. Many call the way this feels ‘low self-esteem’. We are processing information poorly and our conscious and unconscious interface is poorly organized. Basically, we are thinking consciously too much and, without a ‘hand off’ to our unconscious mind, we aren’t learning much. Oneness Therapy works to help us define ourselves with our true purpose in this life. (See Oneness therapy on the bottom of the home page.) Mindfulness training helps us to build, or rebuild the connections between the conscious and the unconscious mind, including the amygdala.

The reassertion of our true purpose in life helps us to send signals to the amygdala. This helps it to overlay new learning patterns over old ones and slowly alters our responses. A more immediate change can be seen in our more thoughtfully considered responses. This will cause a change in our conscious point of view, and can have a rather immediate wholistic response. This then allows us to rather quickly gain the insight that the thoughts we have, are not really the way we feel about someone or something. We can also ‘down regulate’ at least a portion of the automated responses by experiencing these stimuli differently e.g. by enjoying something that previously worried us.

This points us in the right direction, and gets us on our own side. As a result, this relieves us of some of our chronic worries. Now how do we deal with the fact that our amygdala continues to tag too much stimuli to the emotion ‘anxious’? The automated responses happen before conscious thoughts can take effect. Here is where the role of Oneness and mindfulness training becomes helpful. With the highest mind chronically in the dominant position it slowly helps the unconscious circuits, including the amygdala, to change how it emotionally tags sensory input as it is received. Slowly, as new memories outweigh the old, a calm abiding can replace the chronically anxious state.

This tends to happen for anyone who practices mindfulness as this has similar effects no matter where we start in the process. Self-esteem repairs as the highest mind increases its own internal organization. Unconscious processes learn to respond with an organization that allows a deep appreciation and a connection to self and others.

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