Those of us who experienced severe and protracted childhood trauma and constantly felt on-edge threatened or endangered (including psychologically endangered due to, for example, extreme verbal abuse from a parent/primary carer)are, as research and common sense informs us, at an elevated risk of experiencing anxiety disorders as adults.
Research suggests that those who suffer from severe anxiety conditions have brains that 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 (SSRIs) 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.
For example, individuals suffering from severe anxiety have been found to possess smaller amygdalae and hippocampal (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 hippocampal which were only, on average, about seventy-five percent the size of normal hippocampal.
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 :
- GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid)
What Symptoms Are Caused By Imbalances Of The Above Neurotransmitters In The Brain?
I briefly describe these below :
- LOW LEVELS OF SEROTONIN CAN CAUSE :
- excessive worry and rumination
- impaired ability to control emotions
- impaired ability to control impulses
- irrational responses to problems
- an inability to take a positive perspective
- hypersensitivity to a perceived threat (both real and imagined)
2. LOW LEVELS OF DOPAMINE CAN CAUSE :
- inability to feel pleasure (anhedonia)
- loss of motivation
- delusions / psychosis
- obsession with detail/perfectionism
3. HIGH LEVELS OF NOREPINEPHRINE CAN CAUSE :
- impaired ability to think coherently / scattered thoughts
- intense anxiety and restlessness
- an impending sense of doom
- sense of extreme tension (both bodily and psychologically)
- feeling ‘wired’ and ‘jittery’
- panic attacks
4. GABA :
- when GABA works ineffectively it can cause panic attacks
- 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 that can be effective include :
- COGNITIVE-BEHAVIORAL THERAPY (CBT)
- MINDFULNESS MEDITATION
- BREATHING EXERCISES
- HYPNOTHERAPY / COGNITIVE HYPNOTHERAPY