Physical Brain Differences In Those Who Suffer Severe Anxiety.

Physical Brain Differences In Those Who Suffer Severe Anxiety.

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Research suggests that those who suffer from severe anxiety conditions have brains which are different in terms of structure, chemistry and biology compared to the brains of those individuals who are fortunate enough not to suffer from such a debilitating affliction.

To date, research has provided evidence for the following differences:

1) Those who suffer from severe anxiety tend to have lower levels of the chemical serotonin (also known as a neurotransmitter) available in their brains than average (research has found that this also tends to be true of individuals suffering from clinical depression).

This theory of serotonin deficiency is supported by the fact that medications that increase the level of serotonin in the brain, such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSSRIs) class of anti- depressants can effectively ameliorate the symptoms of anxiety.

2) Those who suffer from severe anxiety tend to have lower levels of the amino gamma-aminobutyric (GABA) available in their brains compared to average.

GABA’s  function is to calm and quieten brain activity ; when there is too little of it, research suggests it can lead to:

– difficulties sleeping/insomnia

– feelings of agitation/inability to relax/restlessness/ jitteriness

– ‘out of control’ thoughts/ racing thoughts

– a general feeling of anxiety/nervousness

This theory is supported by the research finding that benzodiazepines, which increase the effectiveness of GABA in the brain, can help to alleviate the symptoms listed above. Unfortunately, however, this medication is addictive and (here in the UK, at least) doctors are very reluctant to prescribe it, particularly for more than a very short period of time (a week or two, in my own personal experience).

3) Those who suffer from severe anxiety, research using brain scans have revealed, can show abnormalities in both the structure and functioning of their brains.

 

PTSD_in_children_and_teenagers

Physical differences in brains of those who have PTSD as a result of severe stress. PTSD can develop as a result of severe childhood trauma.

 

For example, individuals suffering from severe anxiety have been found to possess smaller amygdalae and hippocampae (these are both brain structures involved in the experience of anxiety) than normal, one cause of which is thought to be as a result of the development of these two brain structures being adversely affected in childhood due to the suffering of severe trauma (click here to read one of my articles on this).

Indeed, one study found that those who had suffered severe childhood trauma had hippocampae which were only, on average, about seventy-five per cent the size of normal hippocampae.

 

ANXIETY AND NEUROTRANSMITTERS :

 

Many individuals who suffer from anxiety take prescribed medication for it. This is because anxiety is linked to the imbalance of various neurotransmitters in the brain and medications can sometimes helpfully correct such imbalances (though, like any treatment for anxiety, they do not work equally well for everyone – indeed, in my own case, very few medications I have ever taken for anxiety have had any beneficial effect whatsoever).

What Are Neurotransmitters And What Is Meant By ‘Out Of Balance’?

The brain contains about 10 billion neurons (brain cells). Each of these can potentially communicate with 10,000 other neurons. This communication is carried out by the brain’s neurotransmitters and this communication gives rise to how we think, behave and feel.

When neurotransmitters become out of balance, it simply means that there is an excess or insufficiency of them being produced in the brain. The effect of such an imbalance can cause us problems relating to how we think, behave and feel.

In this article, I want to look at the main neurotransmitters in the brain that are found to be out of balance in those suffering from an anxiety disorder; they are :

  1. SEROTONIN
  2. DOPAMINE
  3. NOREPINEPHRINE
  4. GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid)
  5. GLUTAMATE

What Symptoms Are Caused By Imbalances Of The Above Neurotransmitters In The Brain?

I briefly describe these below :

  1. LOW LEVELS OF SEROTONIN CAN CAUSE : 

 

       2. LOW LEVELS OF DOPAMINE CAN CAUSE :

 

         3. HIGH LEVELS OF NOREPINEPHRINE CAN CAUSE :

  • impaired ability to think coherently / scattered thoughts
  • intense anxiety and restlessness
  • impending sense of doom
  • sense of extreme tension (both bodily and psychologically)
  • hyperarousal
  • feeling ‘wired’ and ‘jittery’
  • panic attacks

 

     4. GABA :

  • when GABA works ineffectively it can cause panic attacks 

 

       5. GLUTAMATE

  •   imbalance which can, in turn, exacerbate an imbalance in other neurotransmitters

 

As stated above, medication prescribed to help correct the imbalance of neurotransmitters does not work equally well for everyone. Non-drug methods of treating anxiety which can be effective include :

  1. COGNITIVE BEHAVIORAL THERAPY (CBT)
  2. MINDFULNESS MEDITATION
  3. BREATHING EXERCISES
  4. HYPNOTHERAPY / COGNITIVE HYPNOTHERAPY (see below)

 

HYPNOTHERAPY AND ANXIETY :

In cases where medication does not work or is inappropriate, hypnotherapy can be an effective treatment for anxiety. The relaxation that hypnosis induces can significantly reduce both emotional arousal and the physiological arousal which invariably accompanies it.

Well controlled research studies (e.g. Weldon et. al.) have demonstrated that the more hypnotizable an individual is, the better their outcome when being treated for anxiety. Anxiety is related to PERSISTENT NEGATIVE THOUGHTS, in particular the constant anticipation that the worst is likely to happen.

Such thoughts are often of the ‘what if…’ type, leading to the imagination conjuring up all kinds of dire predictions (the anxious individual will almost invariably vastly overestimate the chances of the worst happening AND underestimate his/her ability to cope should the worst occur. However, I know from my own experience that the fear such thinking creates is very real and can lead to severe distress).

Examples of the kinds of thoughts the anxious individual may experience are :

– ‘ what if my partner leaves me? – I’ll die lonely and unhappy.’

– ‘ what if I lose my job? – I’ll be on the streets and have to obtain my meals from garbage cans.’

– ‘ what if this new mole on my hand is skin cancer? – I’ll be dead within a month and die horribly, or else my hand will be amputated and my juggling career will be severely hampered.’

The term for this kind of thinking, you will not be surprised to discover, is CATASTROPHIZING. Such thinking processes are often deeply ingrained in those who suffer anxiety; indeed, such catastrophizing can become intrusive and obsessive causing, as I have said, considerable anguish. My own anxiety required that I was sometimes hospitalized.

THE ROLE OF HYPNOSIS. When we are anxious, a vicious circle can develop : our negative, even paranoid, thinking causes us to experience adverse physiological symptoms (e.g. sweating, dizziness, tremors, dry mouth, stomach upsets, physical tension, restlessness etc) and these symptoms, in turn, intensify our negative thinking. In this way the mental and physiological symptoms feed off one another in a king of anti-symbiotic relationship.

Hypnosis can address both of these categories of symptoms in a two-pronged attack – it can reduce negative thinking and encourage their replacement with more realistic, positive thoughts by utilizing a technique, based upon the psychologist, Beck’s, cognitive behavioral therapy model (click here to read my article on this) AND training the individual to use powerful, physical relaxation techniques.

However, acquiring the new skills requires several hypnotherapy sessions, which is why a good hypnotherapist will provide the client with a recording of the session so that s/he (the client) can repeatedly listen to it at home, thus making it more likely the new skills will take permanent root in his/her mind.

 

COGNITIVE HYPNOTHERAPY

COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS WHICH UNDERPIN ANXIETY :

The psychologist Beck (1985), identified certain faulty-thinking styles, or cognitive (thinking) distortions, which underpin the pathological anxious response. These include :

– CATASTROPHIZATION : always expecting the worst possible outcome

– HYPERVIGILANCE : constantly feeling in great danger, and, therefore, always being on ‘red alert’, making relaxation impossible (I myself was in such a state for at least three years without respite and I can therefore attest to the excruciating mental agony such a state can entail)

– SELECTIVE ABSTRACTION : this refers to when we exclusively focus on just the negative side of the situation we find ourselves in

– IRRATIONALITY/LOSS OF PERSPECTIVE : this can involve greatly overestimating the odds of what we fear actually happening. Again, I was in such a state for a long period of time which I think must have extended, at times, into the realms of clinical paranoia. Absolutely horrible.

– DICHOTOMOUS THINKING : this refers to seeing things in extremes and is sometimes referred to ‘black and white’ thinking, so things are viewed as ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’ which leads to the exaggeration, in our minds, of negative events, circumstances and situations.

Hypnosis can help by positively modifying these kinds of faulty-thinking styles and also be inducing relaxation. Some specific techniques employed by cognitive hypnotherapy are outlined below :

1) AGE PROGRESSION : this involves getting the client, in the hypnotic state, to visualize him/herself in a future situation which s/he currently fears and then imagine him/herself coping well with it

2) RESTRUCTURING COGNITIVE CORE BELIEFS : Beck and Emery (1985) identified a number of unhelpful fundamental or core beliefs that the individual prone to pathological anxiety was likely to hold (such a maladaptive belief system almost invariably  stems from adverse childhood experiences). Examples of such anxiety inducing core beliefs (and for many such core beliefs will be acting on an unconscious level) include :

a) ‘I should regard any strange situation I find myself in as dangerous’

b) ‘ I should always expect the worst will happen’

c) ‘I am constantly in serious danger’

The psychologist Leahy (1996) expands upon this and puts forward the view that underlying anxiety are a sense of :

a) Threat

b) Imminent loss or failure

c) Imminent, or current, loss of control over one’s own life

Dowd (1997) outlines ways in which hypnosis can help us to cognitively restructure our unhealthy core beliefs :

REPLACEMENT AND COPING IMAGERY : Once the individual is in the hypnotic trance state it is suggested to them that they imagine themselves in a feared situation, such as being reprimanded by a superior at work. It is then suggested to them that any anxiety this induces will quickly dissolve and be replaced by feelings of competence and of being in control, together with an acceptance that no one is perfect so there is no need to feel one’s confidence has been significantly undermined.

HYPNOTIC COGNITIVE REHEARSAL : This involves repeatedly imagining, under hypnosis, performing well in a feared situation, such as an upcoming social event ( a similar technique is used in sports psychology, whereby, for example, a tennis player will have been trained to vividly imagine a successful serve – exactly where to place the ball etc – before executing the shot).

RESOURCES :

BEAT FEAR AND ANXIETY : SELF HYPNOSIS DOWNLOADS

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

About David Hosier MSc

Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.

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