Breaking The Stigma and Why It’s Important
The purpose of my Catalyst conference is to raise awareness and educate people about the neurobiology of anxiety. Anxiety is a loose term used too often without the understanding of what it actually means. There is a stigma around the term anxiety, such as faking it or using it as an excuse. I have fallen victim to this when my anxiety has inhibited me to participate in my soccer games because I was so anxious I would throw up. Because of the teasing and misunderstanding I received I want to show people the science and psychology behind anxiety and to show the real effects it has on people. With this project I want to change the conversation about anxiety as not just a feeling but a biological and chemical imbalance. This topic is important to me and other people who have anxiety disorders to see what is actually causing some of our emotional and physical discomfort. I hope that this will create a space where people with anxiety and without can learn about it through a new lense. I want this to be a resource for people to learn more not only about anxiety but how the brain works for everyone’s emotions.
The communication between the brain centers and networks in the brain takes place through neurotransmitters. Relating to emotional responses gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) has an inhibitory effect on emotions and can affect the neurotransmitters from properly working. Other neurotransmitters that affect the pathogenesis of anxiety disorders are cholecystokinin (CCK), galanin (Gal), neuropeptide Y (NPY), oxytocin (OT), vasopressin (AVP), and corticotropin-releasing factor. Many MRI studies have found that these neurotransmitters show a high level of activity in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex with people who have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. There is also a higher level of activity in the Amygdala which is the fear and anxiety proscerer. Which leads to the question why is there more activity in the Amygdala and how does this relate to anxiety?
The Limbic System Explained
- The Limbic System is the circuit control for emotions. It has many functions such as:
- Controlling emotions like anger and fear
- Regulating eating, hunger and thirst
- Responding to pain and pleasure
- Controlling functioning of the autonomic nervous system, including things like pulse, blood pressure, breathing and arousal
- Sensing sexual satisfaction
- Controlling aggressive or violent behavior
- Responding to sensory information, especially sense of smell
- The Thalamus is the central hub for sights and sounds
- The Prefrontal Cortex controls the planning complex cognitive behaviors such as executive function and expression of appropriate social behavior.
- The Hippocampus is where your memory, focus and motor control function. Other functions of the hippocampus are:
- Forming short-term and long-term memories through consolidating information
- Learning new skills from reward, punishment, reinforcement and failure
- Recognition of what’s familiar versus new
Navigation or sense of direction
- Spatial memory
- Involved in olfaction (smelling) and tying together smells with specific memories
4. The Amygdala is where the emotions of anxiety and fear are processed.
5. The Hypothalamus is responsible for regulating hormones and maintaining homeostasis. The hypothalamus acts like the “regulator” of hormone control, helps the body maintain homeostasis and sends signals to the pituitary/thyroid/adrenal glands. It gets information from many body parts, including the heart,vagus nerve, digestive system and skin.
First the Thalamus(1) is activated when one of the five senses is present. It then signals the prefrontal cortex(2) which gives these senses meaning. Then it is transmitted to the Hippocampus(3) which stores memories, giving these senses a connection to a memory. Then this memory is transmitted to the Amygdala(4), which decides if this sense, which is now attached with a memory will result in the emotion fear or anxiety. Once the Amygdala decides, it signals the Hypothalamus(5) which initiates the stress response which controls the autonomic nervous system — including the sympathetic nervous system. Which then impacts the rest of the major organs in the body, which increases heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, effects memory, effects the hormone balance such as serotonin, and eventually mood. This is all the hypothalamus’ fight or flight response.
What does Anxiety look like?
When someone has a anxiety disorder the senses all around them affect their brain differently. There is less inhibitory signal and more panic. The senses are still processed through the Thalamus, and then given meaning by the prefrontal cortex. They are then given a connected memory by the Hippocampus. The major change is in the Amygdala. With anxiety disorders the Amygdala is hyperactive, meaning there is more availability to process fear which means more emotional stimuli. When it functions more it treats every sense as a threat. Nothing is accurately processed and everything initiates the fight or flight response in the Hypothalamus. When every sense is treated as a threat the limbic system has a difficult time keeping up, because it is now hyper active as well as the Amygdala. This cause the hypothalamus to go into overdrive affecting the other major organs, like digestive, heart, and lungs. With all the confusion in the limbic system about what is a threat or not this causes the feeling of anxiety and all of its side effects.
The next steps are for people to do their own research to know what is going on in their bodies and in others. Curiosity is important and with the research available there are many answers. Neurobiologists still have lots of research to do pertaining mental disorders and the brain. What you can do is be aware of the biological effects people suffer with. I plan on bringing awareness to my campus and educating others on what I’ve learned and why it is important. This project has helped me realize that my behaviors of anxiety have an explanation and this will help me to communicate with people in my community when I am feeling anxious and what is going on.
Quick Quiz to test your Hippocampus
Patriquin, Michelle A, and Sanjay J Mathew. “The Neurobiological Mechanisms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Chronic Stress.” Chronic Stress (Thousand Oaks, Calif.), U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5832062/#R25.
Noggin, Life. “The Science of Anxiety.” YouTube, YouTube, 29 July 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_jkNmj5S0s.
“Seeking the Neurobiology of Psychiatric Disorders.” Seeking the Neurobiology of Psychiatric Disorders, www.dana.org/News/Details.aspx?id=43191 .