Sunday, October 4, 2009

Anxiety and Our Brains- Part 1: Neurons and Neurotransmitters

I don't know about the rest of you, but I am fascinated by everything I have been learning about so far. It's relieving to understand why I am the way that I am, and why I am taking the medication I am and how it is helping me. There is so much that I am learning that I want to share with you so I thought I would break it down into a series for easier reading. I think it will help to read through and then when you are done with the whole series, to go back and reread it a second time if you are confused.

(What I am sharing is paraphrasing from The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques which is my monthly challenge book, as well as an article on the internet called Your Nervous System at Work.)

Even though the brain is so complex that we could never learn all of it in our lifetimes, neuroscience researchers have learned enough in recent years that it is possible to describe how some parts of the brain contribute to feelings of anxiety.

The average brain is made up of 100 billion neurons or brain cells. These neurons have to communicate with each other to create thoughts, behaviors, and emotions, as well as coordinate senses such as sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch with our muscles and bodies. 

an electron microscope photograph of a brain neuron from Universitäre Psychiatrische Dienste Bern

They communicate with each other by sending messengers back and forth in the space between neurons or brain cells called the synapse. Neurons communicate at synapses through the use of neurotransmitters. These messengers of the brain are chemicals sent between neurons each carrying different messages.

One thing to note: The same message can be interpreted differently depending on which part of the brain is receiving it.
A Few Types of Neurotransmitters that Affect Anxiety:
  • Serotonin is an example of a neurotransmitter involved with the regulation of multiple systems including mood (helping you not be too negative), appetite and sleep (keeps the patterns stable), temperature, pain sensation, impulse control. If your serotonin levels are off balance you can have all sorts of problems.
  • Dopamine- in one part of your brain dopamine can send the message of feeling really good. But if received in the thinking part of your brain it helps you to pay attention. This neurotransmitter helps to motivate you to achieve your goals and face your fears.
  • Norepinephrine-  keeps you mentally alert and energetic. Helps you receive energy in emergency situations. If you have too many of these neurotransmitters, you will feel jittery, wired, or too tense.
Possible Problems with this Process that Can Contribute to Anxiety:
  • There needs to be enough neurotransmitters available to get the messages across from one neuron to another. If your body isn't producing enough neurotransmitters, then the message isn't getting sent. This is where medication could help you increase those numbers.
  • Another scenario could be that you have enough neurotransmitters but they are having a hard time being received by the other neuron. If those messages are "Calm down" or "feel good" you may not be able to receive them.
  • Or perhaps you have too many messages being sent. If you have too many neurotransmitters, you may tend to make a big deal out of little things. It will feel like a big deal because your brain is sending too many messages that says "This is stressful!"  
The functions of your brain all need to be working smoothly for messages to be clearly received and sent.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Anxiety and Our Brains.

Don't forget to join the monthly challenge! Tell us all about it on the forum.



Doctor D said...

I find that discussing the nature of the "fight or flight" instinct and the effects it has on the brain and body is usually very liberating to my patients with anxiety disorders.

When you understand how something works it just isn't as frustrating. You feel more empowered when you understand why your body is doing what it does.

Thanks for running such and informative blog on anxiety disorders.

Gentle Yoga said...

its really very useful and informative posting. its so healthy and nice. thanks for sharing this with us.

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