Anxiety Brain

Today on Quora, I saw the following question: “What’s the difference between a normal person’s brain and someone with anxiety?” I’ll take a stab at it.

This is a great, interesting question. The answer is a bit complicated, because it involves biology, psychology, and culture. Let’s try unpacking all this.

First let’s talk about anxiety. Commonly, anxiety is a feeling characterized by worry, fear, uncertainty, and/or nervousness. Clinically, anxiety is a “a nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks” (Google Dictionary).

Next let’s talk about brains. The important thing to understand here is that different people have different brains at different times.

Part of this is genetic. For example, identical twins are more likely than fraternal twins to have a similar IQ, even if they’re raised in separate households. This means school smarts are encoded to some degree in the brain’s pre-birth programming.

It’s well known that personality traits are also inherited. It’s not clear to what extent, and perhaps this also depends on the person. I’ll give genetics a rough 40-50% explanatory power. One of the big five personality traits is neuroticism, and folks who have higher neuroticism are more prone to feelings of anger, anxiety, depression. Therefore, genetics can lead to brains structurally more likely to experience anxiety.

Another factor differentiating brains is experience. There are many terms for this, such as conditioning or learning. The development of such change can take place at various speeds.

For example, after vomiting when I ate some cooked carrots as a child, I refused to go near them for over a decade and would gag just thinking about them. I still loved raw carrots, and I didn’t mind soft foods. I prefered gooey to crunchy cookies. I would let my cereal go to mush in a bowl of milk before even starting to eat. So somehow, I developed a particular anxiety disorder with cooked carrots, based solely on a specific prior experience (a mental model) without any physical or sensory associations to the food itself (the real world). I really would eat everything as a kid, so this was especially irrational and strange.

Another example: I have a Muslim friend who prays 5 times daily and enacts his religion far beyond that. When he catches a bus, takes a sip of water, or even when he stubs his toe, he manages to thank Allah for something. It’s now become habitual and subconscious to such a degree that I’m sure his “neural gratitude pathways” are much stronger than those of the average human, in much the same way an athlete might have better depth perception or reflexes from practice. It’s really remarkable and inspiring to me, even though I’m not into religion. This friend of mine has effectively strengthened his resistance to anxiety through a unique blend of mindfulness and spirituality. He probably would have made peace with the cooked carrots much sooner than I did.

Context is an additional layer that causes different things to happen to our brains. For instance, someone might have a very different brain state the day before their mother dies compared with the day after. Or if she finds herself in the forest between a mama grizzly bear and the baby cubs. Maybe there’s seasonal affective disorder involved. Perhaps illness or traumatic injury. Of course, we can’t forget the gradual changes induced by aging.

I think context is the most important factor which really best answers the question and ties everything together. If you struggle with anxiety, assuming it’s not so severe that medication is required, I’d recommend focusing here first. If we understand how context is at play with our anxiety, then we can use our evolved rational and narrating brains to fight our ancient lizard brain—where fear lives.

We typically think about context as an external thing, but the way that our brains interpret and respond to context is all about the stories we tell ourselves, the culture that we’re immersed within. We may not have seen a bear before, but we’re going to freak out (at least a little) because we’re scared of big claws and teeth, we’re scared of not having any control over the situation, and we’re ultimately scared of dying. On the other hand, in much the same way as my Muslim friend isn’t worried as much about bad things due to his faith, a park ranger won’t be as alarmed by the scary bear context. She’ll calmly take the best course of action because she’s trained for this. She’s wearing her park ranger uniform, and she’s a professional.

As an aside, I was really disappointed with the movie Gravity because of the ridiculous amount of screaming that happened when things didn’t go as planned. Like, hello, NASA doesn’t let you up there unless you’re fully prepared. And they know that mental conditioning is often more important than physical conditioning. Thank you kindly for demonstrating, Mark Watney. OK, back to the main point…

If we’re dealing with anxiety—at work, at school, in social situations, with food, whatever—it is probably quite accurate to say “well, my brain just isn’t structured like a normal person’s.” But that’s not a very useful framing; it’s a bit of an excuse.

Here’s a more helpful and complete picture: “My brain might not be at it’s best right now. I have feelings of worry, fear, uncertainty, nervousness. These are normal feelings, especially given my genetics, experience, and context. But these feelings are a bit excessive. I’m grateful that brains can change, and I’m excited to put in the daily work required to shift my experience and context. I need to first understand the combination of things giving rise to the anxiety, then I can change my internal narrative, my behaviors, and my brain, one step at a time. It won’t be easy, and it might be helpful to have another person with me who can keep me accountable on this journey. Especially if I haven’t been able to make progress on my own. I’m now ready to make a serious effort at changing my brain. As I dive into the complex specifics of what’s going on in my head, I will surface with practical goals for myself to fully embrace then address the issues at hand.”

If you have further interest, I recommend checking out Jordan Peterson’s many YouTube clips on the relationships between depression/anxiety, neurotransmitters, society, personal history, medication, internal narrative, motivation, and lobsters.


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