To fix a problem, it helps to first understand the machinery.
We often struggle to understand persistent anxiety because it is not rooted in verbal logic. Anxiety can seemingly arise from nowhere and attach to fabricated and nameless threats.
Anxiety (and all other) emotional, intellectual, and cognitive processes originate in the brain. Neurochemicals constantly interact with one another and influence our navigation of the world. In the most fundamental sense, we are governed by brain chemistry. Our brain is powered by a biological operating system we inherited from our ancestors. This brain “hardware” has not changed in tens of thousands of years. We don’t learn from intellectualizing analyzing every possible action. We learn from accidents of experience. Experiences are logged in the brain with neurochemical pathways. Our cortexs use serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, endorphin, and other neurotransmitters, to make decisions.
Once you understand how your brain works, even at a high-level, it is easier to accept, manage, and control the chemicals that cause anxiety.
In Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels, Dr. Loretta Breuning introduces the basic brain chemicals that cause anxiety.
“Dopamine produces the joy of finding what you seek — the ‘Eureka! I got it!’ feeling.”
Dopamine creates a good feeling by unleashing energy, and it stores energy that can lead you to good feelings again. Without effort or intent, dopamine surges build neural templates that respond when you see signs of a reward you’ve already experienced.
The expectation of reward triggers dopamine. The bigger the reward and the closer you get to it, the more dopamine your brain releases.
“Endorphin produces the oblivion that masks pain — often called ‘euphoria.’”
Endorphin masks acute pain for a short time which promotes survival by giving an injured mammal a chance to reach safety. The respite is brief because pain also has survival value. Pain is your body’s signal that something is desperately wrong. We have evolved to notice distress signals, not mask them in perpetuity.
“Oxytocin produces the feeling of being safe with others — now called ‘bonding.’”
Social trust improves survival prospects. Oxytocin is the chemical reward for building social bonds. It is the chemical signature of trust. When isolated from other people, lack of Oxytocin tells our brain that something is wrong.
“Serotonin produces the feeling of being respected by others — ‘pride.’”
Earning respect increases an organism’s chance of survival. People seek social currency because serotonin makes them feel good.
All living creatures have serotonin, even amoeba. At such a simple level, serotonin tells a one-celled organism the direction it should move to find food or avoid harm. (We humans actually have more serotonin in our digestive system than in our brains.)
“Cortisol is triggered by unmet expectations — “disappointment” and also the “do something!” feeling that accompanies bad feelings.”
Cortisol is what we call “pain.” Pain gets our attention. A big burst of cortisol is what we call “fear.” Small drips of cortisol are “anxiety” or “stress.”
When you see things associated with past pain, your cortisol is triggered and you take steps to avoid more pain.
Cortisol makes you feel like you will die if you don’t act instantly. A panic attack is a flood of cortisol. In a panic attack, the brain’s broadcast system is sending you an inflated signal to avoid catastrophe. When your brain finds no immediate physical threat, it continues searching frantically for danger. Without an immediate threat in sight, your mind can attach to or manufacture a new threat.
Adrenaline amplifies the positive or negative message conveyed by the other neurochemicals. It prepares you for immediate action, but it doesn’t tell you whether that action should going toward or away.
When our “happy chemicals” get low, we seek a boost. This can result in a vicious cycle of behavior or unwanted side effects.
For example, if you are depressed, your body is in pain and craves relief. You eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s “Cherry Garcia” ice cream because it triggers the release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter. This etches a pathway in the brain that is more likely to be followed the next time you feel depressed. Repeating the sequence deepens the neural connection.
We all share the same building blocks of brain chemistry, but own neural pathways are our own. Unique neural pathways are formed by experience. Our neural pathways depend on the expectation circuits we build.
Every “positive” biological strategy for survival can have “negative” side effects that add up when repeated over and over. Ironically, identifying threats make us feel safer. This can result in quite the vicious cycle. Identifying or labeling the source of anxiety will cause cortisol will subside. You get a dopamine boots from finding what you seek. You may get a serotonin boost from the feeling of being right. You may even get an oxytocin boost if the evidence bonds you to those with similar concerns. The speed and intensity of this reaction is heightened the next time a similar threat is perceived. Brain synapses develop through repetition.
The good news is that we can rewire our brains with good habits. Understanding the basic components of our biology is a key step in rewiring neural pathways. Virtuous cycles can be built be recognizing the undesired impact of brain chemicals and choosing not to react. This, of course, is easier said than done. In Habits of a Happy Brain Breuning offers simple, safe and natural suggestions for manipulating the brain chemicals that contribute to anxiety.
- Music triggers dopamine because our brains keep predicting what’s coming next in a melody. Listening to music makes us feel good.
- Laughing, exercising, or stretching can trigger a natural boost of endorphin. Endorphin is the chemical fueling a “runner’s high”
- Human contact and touch triggers oxytocin. A hug or a massage will trigger a rush of oxytocin.
- Gratitude boots serotonin. You can boost serotonin by writing down 3 things you are thankful for or through some forms of meditation.
When operating correctly, our brain chemicals promote survival and reproductive fitness. When functioning “improperly,” they can cause anxiety and chronic distress.
Loretta Breuning’s Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels is an approachable and actionable introduction to brain chemistry.
To address anxiety, it helps to understand the brain functions that govern our perception of reality. With a greater understanding of why we feel the way we feel, we can take steps to manage and control the factors that cause anxiety.