Retraining the Anxious Brain

I want to discuss what some people think is rather quotidian but is anything but–anxiety.  To do that, I am going to describe what it’s like living alone after almost twenty years of being married.

It’s harder than I expected but not for the reasons I thought.

When I was in the middle of the turmoil, getting out was foremost on my mind.  I had developed tunnel vision.  “Get out.”  That’s all I could see.  And, this will actually serve you.  Aim for the bullseye.  Use whatever anger you’ve got to energize your efforts particularly if you’re a natural born pleaser.  Do it.  Reach that goal.

Well, I did it.  Now what?

Once the dust settles and your fight/flight/freeze response calms a bit, the wide spectrum of your emotions can display itself.  The adrenaline of the struggle wears off, and the battle fatigue sets in.  You might start to get sick a lot or experience somatic complaints.  You might start crying at inopportune times for no apparent reason.  Intrusive thoughts might begin to trickle in and start to eat away at your brain.  In fact, your brain might suddenly become your enemy.  Solitude and quiet are no longer something you seek out, and nighttime becomes something to dread.  Why? Because once the day is over and the sun sets you feel the weight of your own aloneness in a way you never have before, and the future looks frightening and cold.  Uninviting.  Not hopeful.  But a harbinger of more suffering.  More heartbreak.  More betrayal.  Life doesn’t feel like something to enjoy or plan or even survive but something to fight and avoid.  In fact, hasn’t it always felt like that? And, then the fear comes.  Nothing feels predictable.  Everything feels like it might crumble at any moment.  There is no one behind you, and yet you feel surrounded.  You feel paralyzed and yet you feel the need to run for your life all at the same time.

This is anxiety, and it’s terrible.

This experience comes and goes, and I can’t predict it.  It peaks in a kind of existential panic and slowly acquiesces until I feel like myself again.  I don’t exactly know what triggers it.  My therapist tells me that it is the trauma of the divorce.  It is a big event, and I went through two divorces as a child.  I experienced inordinate trauma during childhood and adolescence, and I experienced emotional and physical trauma in my marriage.  The ‘why’ doesn’t concern me now.  I want to know how to deal with the nuts and bolts of this issue because this is a brain issue now.  My brain has been trained through experience to be anxious.  If my brain can be trained to be anxious, then I can train it to be calm reason would suggest.

The magic question: How? How does one go about doing this? Medication won’t do it.  According to the New York Times, over 30 million Americans are taking antidepressants.  SSRIs and tricyclics will not help us think differently.  I am not against using medications, but a pill won’t teach an anxious brain how to think differently.  It might provide a different “atmosphere” in the brain’s environment making the brain more teachable, if you will.

Think of it like this.  What events happened in your life to give you anxiety? Did they kick your ass? Were they traumatic? Do you remember them? Divorce.  Failed relationships.  Bullying in school.  Various traumas.  Poverty.  Sexual assault.  Sexual harassment.  Even something that feels more mundane to you like neglect or sibling rivalry.  Or always moving as a child and never having a friend.  Perhaps being teased for your appearance.  Being cheated on by a significant other.  Cyber-bullying.  Spending your whole life feeling invited but not included.  Like you’re always looking in on everyone having a good time from the outside and longing to be a part of it.  Perhaps you felt a profound rejection at some point in your life and the sting won’t leave you.  It haunts you in every relationship.  Or betrayal in a faith community.  One never expects that, but it’s very common.  Betrayal by God.

These are very real life experiences, and they each reinforce the neural connections that teach our brains to be anxious and scared.  Then, whenever we attempt to step out and try again, our brain is there with its faithful alarm system to warn us: “Don’t you remember when _______? This feels a lot like that.  If you do that, then __________ will happen again.  Better not.”  Or worse, “People are not trustworthy.  Everyone you trust hurts you.  Better not to trust anyone.  Being alone is better than being betrayed.”  With a brain like that, who needs enemies? If you’ve endured trauma and betrayals, however, then how do you argue with your own brain’s alarm systems? How do you argue with experience? How do you argue with yourself?

What do you do?

There is a plethora of information available on this very subject.  Too much.  So, I am going to come at this from a neuroscience angle for a moment in order to make sense of the cognitive behavioral information that many of us have heard before.

What is a neuron? (click here for a good answer)

A neuron is a cell within our nervous system that communicates with other neurons.

What is a neural connection or pathway?

The technical answer:

“There are a variety of reasons that drive the creation of neurons linking together in new ways. A few drivers of the way existing neurons may begin to link in a new manner might be through focused learning of new information or situations we are exposed to. Another could be an area of the brain damaged by an illness such as a stroke might drive the injured part of the brain’s essential functions to be taken over by a healthy area (usually an area close in proximity), mental illness, but there are a multitude of reasons it can happen.

Here is an example of how it might happen. You might decide to learn that new language that you’ve been meaning to for the last 10 years. As you study the language neurons housed in the area of your brain that’s storing your native language would send electrical messengers down the axons to the cell’s center (soma) where it is then routed to a particular group of connected dendrites which would then release a chemical messenger to the new targeted group of neurons that are located next to it. New neural pathways begin to be formed to acquire and store the new language. These new pathways become stronger the more they are used, causing the likelihood of new long-term connections and memories.” (online source)

The analogy:

“An analogy to consider how this function might take place is if you grew up in the woods. Everyday you took the same few paths to get the things you needed to sustain yourself. You never strayed from those paths at all. Then one day as you walk down your normal path that is heavily worn from years of use down to the river you notice a little building way off the trail you’re on. You think wow I’d like to check that out, but you’ve never been off the trail. You decide to go check it out. You leave the worn path that you were on to ground that you’ve never stepped foot on before. You approach the door of the building then walk inside to notice that there is a large volume of books on the subject of building log cabins. You are looking around the room and notice a note on a table that states you are welcome to use the place anytime you want but please never take the books from the building with you. So you begin to come and go everyday to read and focus on learning how to build new log cabins. Everyday as you come and go you begin to develop two fresh paths that diverge off of the worn river path that you use to get to the building. When walk to the cabin everyday these fresh paths begin to become worn and easily noticeable. Even though the paths never become as ingrained and worn as your original paths they are still distinct and worn. This is similar to how neuroplasticity occurs in our brains as we learn something new. The more we repeat something and use that portion of the brain in a focused way new neural pathways might develop in your brain.” (online source)

What about brain chemistry? Doesn’t that affect all this? 

What you learn changes the neural associations in your brain.  What is in those neural pathways or associations becomes permanent.

Now, how do brain chemicals, neurochemistry, and “imbalances” of brain chemistry fit here?

Your neural pathways and associations influence and decide which neurochemicals, and at what “strength” pass through the synapse (i.e., synaptic gap).  Your neurochemistry is determined by your neural pathways and associations, not the other way around.

Medication or pills can change your brain chemistry temporarily.  But, medications have no power to change neural pathways or associations.  There is no cure for anxiety in medication.  There is a temporary, chemical change in your brain brought about by the medication.  But it lasts only as long as the medication is synthesized to last, from four hours to longer periods.  But it is never permanent.  You always need to take another pill to get the same effect.

The only permanent solution is to change your neural pathways and associations.  This can only be done by learning new strategies, rational concepts, and new methods to extinguish anxiety.  Then, these new strategies and methods must be practiced and practiced.  This is why we always talk about repetition.

Without repetition, neural pathways and associations cannot change.  To have a permanent solution for anxiety, our neural pathways and associations MUST change.

When our neural pathways and associations change, our brain chemistry also changes.  This is a permanent change, because you have practiced the new methods and concepts (i.e., the cognitive therapy) into your brain repetitiously, thus creating new neural associations.  The more dense these neural associations are, the more you have recovered from anxiety.

Everything in life works like this.  Whatever you really learn causes new neural pathways in the brain, and, over time, with repetition, you gradually become better and better at something. (online source)

Well, this is good news.  Another part of me wants to kick the dirt and say, “Well, shit.”  It does make sense.  We were not born anxious or traumatized.  We learned to feel this way through lots and lots of “practice”.  Really unpleasant and painful practice but practice nonetheless.  We had experiences that taught us things.  We drew conclusions.  We might have learned to think in terms of “If x, then y“.  This will work, too, in terms of self-protection, but it only solidifies anxious and fearful neural connections.  “If I disclose any personal information, then it will be used against me in the future.”  The next conclusion? “Therefore, never disclose personal information.”  The final result? “Don’t trust anyone.”

You will survive.  That is what we as humans are wired to do.  We are wired for survival, but most people yearn for something better than that.  We know that there is something better.  I am, therefore, going to shift the content of my posts towards the topic of relearning how to think after major life events.  It’s one thing to read about neuroplasticity and cognitive therapy.  On paper, it’s all so interesting.  But how do you really do it?

That is what I am going to elucidate.  We are going to do it.  Why? Because I have never been interested in survival.

Thriving is the goal.


For Further Reading:

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