The Science Behind Stress and Anxiety: The Ancient Brain

Why we Exhaust Ourselves… angry kittyToday, people tend to be overwhelmed not just by constant inputs (technologically), but by self-criticism. First, the brain is actually built to focus on the negative; this is an evolutionary vestige built for survival, but today, neuroscientists are aware that it’s not just an annoyance, but that the brain remembers and focuses on he negative much more readily than it does the positive. The brain not only retains more negative memories for longer periods of time, but components of the brain actually work to prevent positive experiences from being retained–all in the name of survival. This was perfectly well and good when we were being hunted by large prey animals or fighting off a rival tribe (memorizing and maximizing awareness of potential threats was a life and death proposition for all creatures, including the walking bipeds). Today, however, this focus on the negative has much less of a purpose, and, in fact, it’s been proven that negativity creates many of our physical problems. More on this later, but for now, suffice to say that the brain treats positive thoughts and experiences like Teflon, but treats negative experiences like Velcro. So, when we’re threatened–either for real or only in our minds–the brain focuses on that experience, and creates neural networks to reflect the negative. Over time, this can become a serious problem and create the negative feedback loop. In the book, Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Course for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, Mark Williams and Danny Penman explain how many people today become trapped in a spiral that they can’t escape. It’s what I call a Negative Feedback Loop, and it often involves self-punishing thoughts, feelings, obsessiveness, trauma, or simply exhaustion from too much of “modern life.” We punish ourselves for a variety of reasons: self-loathing, not enough money, not attractive enough, fear of all manner of things (health, people, failure, death, intimacy). Some fears are real, some are the result of childhood or other violent trauma, some are the result of obsessive behaviors–but all these feelings are negative. And the brain focuses on this and creates even more negative neurons in response. That’s part of the feedback loop (Mind: “I’m worried/stressed/afraid!” Brain: “I hear you. Let’s keep going with that!”)

…but Animals don’t have this problem. When an antelope narrowly escapes an attack by a predator, it very quickly shakes off the trauma and goes back to grazing or doing whatever it was doing before the attack. That’s because it doesn’t have a more modern, complex thinking brain–it resolves the trauma and stress very quickly and naturally. Animals don’t “dwell” on anxiety and fear, because they don’t have the capability to do so. When an animal has a traumatic experience, it has mechanisms in place that quickly resolve, so that it can go back to eating and procreating and watching reruns of Breaking Bad (I have no official data on the latter!) cheetah memeUnfortunately, we modern humans aren’t so lucky–especially when it comes to conceptual, or imagined threats that trigger anxiety, stress, and panic. Everyone has experienced this at some point or another, but for some, these states last weeks, months, or in some cases, years, with dire results, as was the case with this poor veteran. One of the reasons that humans enter into negative feedback loops is because their more evolved brains try to “figure out” solutions to fears (real or imagined), and when they can’t (using their newer cortex capabilities), that causes more stress, which the brain then uses to trigger alarms that the body is under attack, and the cycle continues. To avoid going into brain geek-speak (which we’ll do in another post), let’s describe what the brain does in response to apparent threats in simple terms: According to Williams and Penman, when humans are stressed or feel threatened, our fight or flight reactions kick in, driven by one of the more “ancient” parts of the brain (see post on the amygdala). The symptoms of this can be increased heart rate, profuse sweating, tremors, nausea, diarrhea panic, increased breathing rate, dizziness, and so on–all in the name of preparing the body to defend itself or flee. (There’s another response called “freezing,” that will be addressed at another point.) This reaction, in turn, switches on what Williams and Penman refer to as the “doing” mode, wherein the brain searches for answers for dealing with the threat. When your “newer, more evolved” brain function tries to figure out how to solve the problem, it’s searching it’s “memory database” for past information to solve the problem/threat (“I’ve had headaches like this before, just before it rained, so it could be the change in the weather”). But it’s also thinking about possible future outcomes, usually in a negative way (“I’ve had headaches before, but not like this–it’s probably brain cancer!”). When this part of the brain can’t solve the problem, and the individual dwells or obsesses on the threat, the brain doesn’t resolve it, as it does with the antelope. It can, instead, begin a negative feedback loop, wherein the fight or flight symptoms become exacerbated/worsened.

Danger Will Robinson: The Negative Feedback Loop danger will robinsonThe brain’s alarm system, triggered by the initial stressor or threat, stays “switched on,” because this ancient processor doesn’t care whether the threat is real or you’re just being unreasonably obsessive, all it knows is “Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!” Why is this a problem? Well, this your body and brain really start to react together to “protect” you from the threat. But the thing is, you don’t really necessarily need protecting. Doesn’t matter: the ancient brain says you do so it acts accordingly. What happens next is, or can be, pretty frightening, and it’s what many if not all Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) victims experience: To paraphrase Williams, unlike the running antelope, we don’t stop to eat grass after the danger has past, we keep running. The modern brain, or “doing mode” views unhappiness, anxiety, stress, fear, minor illness as problems to be solved. When the brain can’t solve them, it creates more stress, feeding the ancient brain with “fuel” for “protecting” the organism (you!). Even though most of the time you don’t really need protecting from anything real, the agnostic, indifferent ancient brain doesn’t know or care about that–it’s preparing you for battle or flight, whether you need to or not.

It can be Pretty Scary Most people who enter this cycle of fight or flight resolve the problem–they think of something else, are otherwise distracted by normal life activities. But some people aren’t so lucky. Some people get caught in this cycle of fight/flight cannot resolve their issues, and find themselves in a very bad place indeed. Research indicates that people who cannot stay in the present or focused and are “out of touch” with the world often have an amygdala that is on high alert all the time. (I strongly suspect this is what’s happening with many souls who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan–more on this in another post.) As Prof. Williams puts it in an understated way, “The way we react can transform temporary and non-problematic feelings (i.e., perceived, but not real, threats) into persistent and troublesome ones.” A “perceived” threat then becomes the actual threat, complete with real, physical dangers and consequences, including a vast and disturbing array of symptoms ranging from depression and anxiety to debilitating physical or somatic symptoms that run the gamut from headaches, sleeplessness, and nausea, to dizziness, tingling, and the sense that electricity is coursing through your body. Often, people feel “disembodied,” and “disconnected” from the world–this is known in psychological parlance as “dissociation.” What if 🙁 Often feeding negative feedback loop is a constant query: “what if…?” What if…

  • I have a deadly illness?
  • My fear won’t go away?
  • I lose my job because I’m too debilitated to work?
  • I lose my family?
  • I lose my mind?
  • I stop feeling like this?

These are fears that many people have at some point or another in their lives, but for people who are caught in the negative feedback loop, it’s hard to break out of it. For those folks, they often turn to a seemingly endless cycle of diagnostic testing, testing, and more testing, especially if there are unexplainable physical symptoms.

But What if 🙂 What if…” thinking doesn’t have to be negative; it can be positive. For example, What if…

  • I have don’t have a deadly illness?
  • I could control my fears instead of the other way around?
  • My job is safe because I realize I’m doing this to myself and it can be fixed?
  • I become a better member of my family?
  • I become a more evolved individual by tapping into the innate ability of the most powerful tool in the universe, my own brain?

The truth is that just as your brain can debilitate you, it can also heal you. If you’re familiar with the placebo effect, it’s real and it works. Not to suggest that you should embrace the placebo effect somehow (although, yes, there are apps for that!). The main point here is that if you believe the placebo effect is real, then by logical extension, it follows that you should believe that brain is capable of healing. Relatively speaking, here in the West, we’re just now beginning to tap the brain’s potential–in the East, they’ve been onto this for thousands of years!).

Mental Hygiene: Taking Care of your Brain so it can Take Care of You For many people this is a bizarre and strange new “train my brain” world and can be pretty daunting. But the science of “mental hygiene” is proven, and meditation and self-improvement through improving your brain has become increasingly popular here in the West by Buddhists such as Thich Nhat Hanh. Most people in the medical establishment, however, still haven’t caught up to applying the mind’s powers, but even corporations are starting to tap into its benefits to help their employees. These benefits are available to anyone willing to open themselves up to possibilities beyond the waiting room and doctor prescriptions; to paraphrase the great Stephen Colbert, thousands have rewired their brains and now so can you.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). One of the luminaries in the field of using ancient meditation techniques to improve our health, lower stress, and decrease anxiety is the is Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. At the University of Massachusetts, Dr. Kabat-Zinn developed a practice called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Thousands of people have benefited from MBSR training: Here’s their main website, where you can find tools and information about MBSR and how it can help. Here’s their website, and here’s a link to their online 8-week course. Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s book, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of your Body and Mind to Face Strress, Pain, and Illness is an important–and accessible–explanation of how to tap into your mind’s organic capabilities to bring greater calm to your daily life. He’s helped thousands of people–from regular folks to CEOs and olympic athletes. The stress reduction clinic he founded at the University of Massachusetts has become a model for undreds of MBSR centers and clinic around the country and the world. Google MBSR in your state/country to see if a clinic is available. The simple explanation for mindfulness meditation is that it calms you by stopping the “constant traffic” in your head and recognizing the “moment.” Think about it. We’re always thinking about the past or the future, but often never fully engaged in the moment we have, right now, right as you read this. It turns out that fully experiencing–both physically and mentally the moment (as well as grace, letting go, patience, kindness, appreciation) are all key to a healthier, less stressful mind–and life. ancient brain logo

Rewire my Brain? Why Yes, Thank You. It’s not a bad sci i movie, the latest research proves that you can very much impact the way your brain is wiring or “programming” itself. The amazing thing about mindfulness, appreciation, and repeated positive inputs is that they literally help disrupt the negative feedback loop and create new neuron networks that actually make you feel better. Did you know, for example, that London cab drivers–who have to memorize a dizzying labyrinth maze of streets have larger areas in their brains where spatial memory is stored (the hippocampus)? This is very good news indeed, because your brain is, every day, rewiring itself, whether you know it or not. One of the leading experts on neuropsychology and how the brain is “programmed” is Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. According to Hanson:

“The knowledge of neuroscience has doubled in the last twenty years. It will probably double again in the next twenty years. I think that neuropsychology is, broadly, about where biology was a hundred years after the invention of the microscope: around 1725.” ~ Rick Hanson

Hanson’s book explains that, for survival purposes, the brain has evolved to retain more negative information/experiences/memories and less positive ones. In spite of the uphill battle to retain positive experiences, Hanson explains that we can, through practice, create new, positive neural networks; basically, an ability to “program” our brains for happiness. According to Hanson, it’s not enough to engage in mindfulness, per se, one must really engage the positive experiences that we have so that the brain ingrains them as a rushing stream of water creates deeper and deeper pathways in a riverbed. No easy task, but over time, practicing the ideas that Hanson offers will help create more “positive connections in the brain that can lead to a happier, healthier you. Here’s a brief paper on the subject from Hanson that’s well worth the read. These and many other resources and recommendations will be included in the Resources page, which is a work in progress. Yours in Mental Hygiene from the Ancient Brain Team.

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