Until recently, it was thought that the brain was ‘hard wired’ and certain behaviours, reactions and emotions were inevitable in people who may have been predisposed to them. However, recent studies have revealed that its life’s experiences and the environment that shape a brain and how it responds and reacts – that means anxiety and depression isn’t inevitable and certainly isn’t something people need to suffer with for the rest of their life. Anxiety and depression are due to behaviour and not genes, biology or other brain problems.
The forming of neural networks is how we learn and develop.
Memories, which are basically stored bits of information, occur because of the formation of neural networks: basically nerve cells that fire together “wire” together. That means they develop long-term relationships with other nerve cells simply based on their relationship with each other. That’s why practice makes perfect. The more a network is used, the tighter it becomes which means the more automatically it fires and habits are formed.
Learning how to drive a car is a perfect example of this mechanism. When we begin to learn, we have to concentrate on every little thing; Putting the gears in, turning on the headlights, checking over our shoulder, stepping on the brake, and so on. But as we practice driving, neural networks begin to form and strengthen, soon we don’t have to think about every little action we carry out because the actions have all become automatic and instinctual.
The more we drive, the better we get at it. Eventually, we can listen to music and talk to passengers whilst driving and think nothing of it.
Repeating the same actions reinforces and teaches the brain to remember how to do things automatically.
Another example are taxi drivers. Taxi drivers have larger hippocampus’s than the general population, this is the part of the brain that stores memories, the reason they have larger hippocampus’s is because they have more brain cell growth in that part of the brain because of having to remember and store all the streets and routes.
During their knowledge training they are riding around memorising different routes and streets and in return more brain cells are produced and wire together and the hippocampus grows (neurogenesis). This ensures they recall and remember routes automatically.
A retired taxi driver may lose some of this memory because he stops using that part of the brain as he doesn’t need to recall those routes. After time the hippocampus may shrink as those cells prune away and memories of some of his knowledge will fade away.
Neural networks work well regardless of the circumstances, i.e. they are good when you WANT to remember something, but not so good when you DON’T want to remember something, such as a bad, fearful, or painful experience.
Habits such as anxiety disorders also form neural networks. The same principle is applied to depression, the more we worry or think about a particular thing, the more established and tighter the networks become and the cycle continues.
We can break and forget habits we don’t want by replacing them with new habits we like. Neural networks make this possible.
Each time we interrupt these neural networks, the nerve cells that are wired together begin to lose their relationship with each other and eventually become obsolete. This is how we break free from these and other habitual conditions. So if you would like to replace old information with new information, all you have to do is think of the new information enough times, and intentionally STOP thinking of the old information, and eventually, NEW neural networks will develop and the old ones will fade away.
It is important to mention, that particular memories can develop extremely quickly. Research has found that when an experience is accompanied by a fear, a shock and/or stress response, the brain internalizes that bit of information much faster than normal. This means those experiences that frightened, stressed or shocked us are memories that are stored much more quickly than memories from non frightening, non stressful experiences.
Nevertheless, we can still teach ourselves not to be afraid or depressed by simply interrupting the old neural networks and reprogramming new neural networks. While this process may be slower for neural networks that are associated with fear and depression, we can still do it using the same principles of repetition and reinforcement, and interrupting old neural networks so that they begin to diminish and become obsolete.
This is fantastic news for people suffering with anxiety disorders and depression as the brain can be reprogrammed (rewired).
Remember, these disorders develop when we become overly fearful about one or many things, and our fears and their consequences, which can interfere with a normal lifestyle.
Memories and habits are simply pieces of information that have been stored as neural networks through the process of repetition and reinforcement. It’s within our capability to replace the unhealthy neural networks with healthy neural networks. Therefore, as I mentioned earlier, anxiety disorder and depression recovery is possible for anyone. Because of the brain’s neuroplasticity, none of us are helplessly stuck with a situation we can’t get out of.
Because of how the brain can be rewired, it’s within our capability to make healthy changes.
Anxiety and Depression are Not Genetically Hardwired
It was believed till recently, that the brain was virtually ‘hard-wired’ in how it functioned…meaning that particular parts of the brain were responsible for particular tasks and other parts of the brain were responsible for other tasks, and so on.
However, recent research by educational neuroscience, “mind-brain-education,” has found that the brain isn’t hard-wired, after all.
“What we find is people really do change their brain functions in response to experience,” said Kurt W. Fischer, the director of Harvard University’s Mind, Brain, and Education Program. “It’s just amazing how flexible the brain is. That plasticity has been a huge surprise to a whole lot of people.”
These findings corroborate earlier research that found the brain is quite amazing in how it adapts and change as behavior, environment, neural processes, and other parts of the body other than the nervous system change. Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe how the nervous system (which includes the brain) changes and adapts throughout life.
This research is important in regards to anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders because it disproves the idea that these disorders have a chemical, biological, or genetic cause. Since recent research has found that different parts of the brain work together, this disproves the theory that one or two parts of the brain are ‘faulty’ and therefore need rectifying in order to eliminate these disorders.
Even our genetic code isn’t set in stone – genes do not control biology and are dormant or activated depending on our environment and thought life. Research has shown that we control our DNA not our DNA controlling us. Studies following young twins, for example, have found that their epigenetic profiles diverge as they get older, making their temperaments, mental health, physical health, and aging differ as time goes on. Even serious mental health issues such as schizophrenia and bipolar have been shown to vary according to environment rather than being genetic.
There is no such thing as a genetic hard-wired depression or anxiety without a serious underlying medical condition, the “chemical imbalance” theory is false.
“To believe that “biology is destiny” doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Your genes don’t make you do things.” – Deepak Chopra
“No single gene determines a particular type of behaviour. Behaviours are complex traits involving multiple genes that are affected by a variety of other factors. This fact often gets overlooked in media reports hyping scientific breakthroughs on gene function, and, unfortunately, this can be very misleading to the public.” – The Human Genome Project
“Genetic evolution did not determine most of how we act or provide us all with a pre-programmed human nature. For instance, there is no reason to believe that human beings are either innately violent or innately peaceful, instinctively disposed to wreck their environments or to be conservationists… The Human Genome Project had put the final nail in the coffin of genetic determinism.” – Paul R. Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford, president of the Center for Conservation Biology, and a past president of the American Institute of Biological Sciences
“The idea that one or two genes could predict something like behavior violates all that we now know about the complex relationship between genes and traits.” – Evan Charney, a Duke University professor of public policy and political science
“Scientific research has shown that up to 98% of mental, physical and behavioural illnesses come from our thought life, which is indubitably a large and frightening number, and contrary to what many of us have been led to believe. In fact, few human processes are turned on or off by a single gene. Most processes require many genes acting together to produce a common result. Thus, the idea fired up by the media that there is a gene for this and a gene for that is incorrect. From second to second, day-by-day, genetic cascades are turned on or off by our own thoughts and experience. Yes, that means we are largely in control!” – Dr. Caroline Leaf.
“Environmental factors weigh heavily in modulating gene expression in humans. North Carolina state researchers, Youssef Idaghdour, an NC State graduate student in genetics and Fulbright scholar, and Dr. Greg Gibson, formally William Neal Reynolds Professor of genetics at NC State and currently a faculty member at the University of Queensland in Australia found that specific genes and pathways are affected by lifestyle and geography. ‘The most important implication in this study is that people with the same genetic makeup can be in different environments and have different expression profiles,’ said Idaghdour.” – NewsMedical.net
“Having a gene is only the first step. Unless a gene is turned on, it’s as meaningless as a CD that is never played.” – Sharon Begley, co-author of The Mind and the Brain, and author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.
“Behaviour is NOT etched in our DNA.” – Gene Robinson, entomoloy and neuroscience professor at University of Illinois.
The latest neuroscience and epigenetic research have given us more of an incentive for doing healthy behavioural work: healthier brain function means healthier gene expression. change your thinking, you change your brain.
“Jeffrey Lacasse and Jonathan Leo, Ph.D., the authors of “Serotonin and depression: A disconnect between the advertisements and the scientific literature,” published in PLoS Medicine, have delivered a decisive blow to psychiatry’s unubstantiated claim about a “chemical imbalance” in the brain of people who suffer from depression –or other psychological / emotional ailments.”
“The article, by a professor of anatomy and a doctoral student, is receiving wide attention both in the general and medical news media–Nature, WebMD, Medscape, UPI, New Scientist, the Wall Street Journal.”
“When confronted with evidence refuting this mantra of biological psychiatry, Wayne Goodman, chair of the FDA’s psychopharmacologic advisory committee admitted in The New Scientist, that the “chemical imbalance” story is but a “useful metaphor.”
“WSJ health columnist, Sharon Begley, points out that “For many, SSRIs help little, if at all. To do better, we have to get the science right.”
“But instead of science, the public and health care professionals have been fed a bill of goods: “Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil ads and glowing accounts in the press have turned patients with depression into veritable pharmacologists, able to rattle off” the serotonin chemical imbalance script they have been fed by SSRI drug manufacturers and the psychiatric establishment. But Lacasse and Leo found that: “Not a single peer-reviewed article … support(s) claims of serotonin deficiency in any mental disorder.” “Low serotonin levels no more cause depression than low aspirin levels cause headache.”
“Claiming that anxiety and depression results from biological or chemical imbalances, as many ads do, is very problematic on many fronts. Patients who are made to believe this are more likely to demand a prescription.
“Most people treated for depression and anxiety are on medication rather than psychotherapy, this week a study from Stanford University reported that drugs have been replacing psychotherapy for depressed adolescents. Psychotherapy has to be the first-line treatment for most kids. Psychotherapy “can be as effective as medications” for major depression, concluded a study in April of 240 patients, in the Archives of General Psychiatry.”
“Numerous other studies find the same. The hegemony of the serotonin hypothesis may be keeping patients from a therapy that will help them more in the long term. The relapse rate for patients on pills is higher than for those getting cognitive-behavior psychotherapy.”
The bottom line is, we’ve all been lied to. The “chemical imbalance” theory was just that: an unsubstantiated claim that NEVER had any evidence to support it. Yet, the public were led to believe it was true, and consequently, inappropriately treated.
So the next time you are told that your anxiety or depression is CAUSED by a chemical imbalance or a problem with your brain, ask your doctor or psychiatrist for the medical proof: a blood test or any other medical test to verify their diagnosis. You will be surprised that no test exists.
please see videos in reassurance section
A study conducted by researchers at the Columbia University in New York City revealed that risperidone was no better than placebo in OCD patients who failed to respond to initial monotherapy with this serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SRI).
The researchers were very surprised, however, to discover that CBT (which included exposure therapy and ritual prevention) was significantly more effective than a placebo or any other medication/drug.
This study was presented at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) 33rd Annual Conference.
What Anxiety Does to Your Brain
Although anxiety disorders are not hard wired, the processes still take a place in the brain – both when you start worrying and when the stress response begins. The thalamus is the main communication and interpretive part of the brain, while the amygdala serves as a warning area and is sometimes referred to as the ‘fear centre’. When an anxious message is received by the thalamus, it is seen as threatening which activates the amygdala (fight or flight response), which then sets off a stress reaction in the rest of the body. If this continues and left untreated, over time anxiety disorders can develop. The dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate, hippocampus, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and orbitofrontal cortex all decrease in size, this in turn is responsible as to why anxious people are irrational. Other areas like the amygdala increase in size, this makes the amygdala more erratic, sensitive and can readily fire false alarms creating more anxious thoughts and anxiety symptoms.
The good news: Like all aspects of anxiety, this is also a reversible process during therapy and recovery.
Lets take a more detailed look at the mechanics:
The hippocampus helps the brain to learn and store new memories and information including frightening situations. This is how we learn which situations are dangerous and which are not
The hippocampus is the memory part of the brain, vital to storing the sensitive information coming in from the senses, along with the emotional memories attached to the information as it passes through the amygdala.
The locus coeruleus reacts to signals from the amygdala, it is responsible for triggering many of the anxiety responses, which include a rapid heartbeat,sweating, increased blood pressure, and pupil dilation.
Unlike the immediate response of the amygdala, which sets off an instant rush of fear, the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis sustains the stress response, which causes long-term uneasiness typical of anxiety.
The cortex gives meaning to sensitive sounds and sights, allowing the brain to become conscious of what it’s hearing or seeing. It’s the rationalisation area of the brain.
The prefrontal cortex is vital in turning off the stress response once the danger has passed. This part of the brain is referred to as the “anxiety brake.”
When sight and sound stimuli are received, they are first processed by the thalamus, this part of the brain filters the incoming signals and sends them either directly to the amygdala or to the appropriate parts of the cortex.
When smells and touch sensations are received, the thalamus is bypassed and they take a shortcut directly to the amygdala. This is why smells often arouse stronger memories and feelings than sights or sounds do.
The following occurs when an alarm message is sent to the thalamus:
When a message is received by the thalamus and perceived as dangerous or threatening, the thalamus sends it directly first to the amygdala and then to the cortex.
The amygdala then sends an instant alarm to the rest of the brain and body to prepare it for action. This response is not meant to be exact, but just fast.
Upon receiving the message from the amygdala, the hypothalamus sends its own messages to the sympathetic nervous and endocrine systems, stress hormones are then released into the bloodstream.
Stress hormones quickly rush through the whole body, preparing it for action.
Whilst the body prepares, the hippocampus receives another message from the amygdala, this alarm and its present circumstances are stored as a memory. The hippocampus will remember where it was when it received the alarm and what was happening at the time. It does this so we remember to stay clear of the threatening situation next time.
In the meantime, the cortex is analysing the message sent by the thalamus to see if there is any rational reason for the alarm. If there is, it sends another message through the prefrontal cortex and straight back to the amygdala, which then sends another alarm.
If the cortex perceives that there’s no cause for alarm, then the prefrontal cortex “brakes” the message to the amygdala and no further alarm is sounded.
The body’s central command and communications system is the nervous system, which has the ability to automatically receive and create information throughout the body, both voluntarily and involuntarily.
The endocrine system communicates and influences changes in the body by automatically secreting hormones straight into the bloodstream.
The amygdala, “the alarm system”, is sensitive to threats and sounds the alarm when danger is perceived.
The hypothalamus is the brains ‘main computer’ which processes and acts on this information.
The nervous system, endocrine system, and brain work closely together automatically.
The adrenal glands secret the hormones adrenaline, nor-adrenaline, and cortisol straight into the bloodstream when prompted to do so.
Small to mild stress or fear will cause the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline to be secreted into the bloodstream. They are milder and shorter-acting stress hormones.
More intense or sustained stress or fear will cause the hormone cortisol to be secreted into the bloodstream. Cortisol is a more powerful and longer-lasting stress hormone.
Higher levels of stress hormones make it faster and easier to trigger more stress-response alarms. That’s because higher levels of stress hormones CAUSE a heightened sense of anxiety and fear as a side effect. This means that average stress and fear will be PERCEIVED as more threatening and fearful. This occurs because stress hormones cause us to be more alert to danger, and readies us to respond to it more quickly.
More alarms cause more stress hormones. Higher levels of stress hormones make it easier and faster to trigger emergency alarms.
Higher levels of stress hormones make it more difficult to shut off the stress response and in return anxiety disorders or depression occur and the cycle continues.
Anxiety disorders and depression are NOT caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, brain abnormalities or by genes. Anxiety disorders are caused by unhealthy behaviours, its the unhealthy behaviours are the source of problematic anxiety.
Important notes from Nick:
I need to make an important statement, you may have read on some websites or been told by a mental health professional that OCD and PTSD are seperate stand alone conditions. I need to correct this and tell you right now that this is false!
These are claims made by people who have not had an anxiety disorder and simply don’t understand them. In many cases many mental health professionals and doctors are badly advised from out dated medical school literature or psychiatries pseudoscientific, biological hypothetical bias. In many cases, some websites are funded by the pharmaceutical companies and more than likely are promoting drugs somewhere on their site.
Yes science has shown that anxiety symptoms differ from person to person, thats why we have different anxiety disorders, and therefore we may observe different blood flow patterns under FMRI in the brain. This is not abnormal but a natural reaction to stress, fears and anxiety. Scientists also look at the brains white and grey matter under MRI in different structures of the brain, and sometimes observe small changes, however this is because different worry patterns create different changes. These changes are reversible, for example, parts of the limbic system enlarge and the prefrontal cortex shrinks when somebody is continuously stressed, science actually shows this is all reversible when anxiety has been reversed. This process is called ‘Neuroplasticity’ and therefore the idea that theres something wrong with the brain to begin with is completely false.
Having said that, many healthy humans have these same patterns. Someone may show one pattern today and another tomorrow. Its all become clear to science that our brains change day by day depending on our environment, thought life, stress and so on.
Sometimes we see different brain patterns between different anxiety states, for example in panic disorder you may show a different pattern to someone who has GAD or OCD, this is because a different part of the brain is firing when panicking, whereas in GAD, your worrying so you may show a different pattern or in OCD your having urges with safety seeking behaviours which involves another part of the brain. This is obvious because of the different types of symptoms and thought processes, this does not make one more or less treatable than the other, nor does it make any of these diseases. These are all symptoms of anxiety and how our worries and fears have manifested, but some medical professionals want you to think that there’s something wrong with your brain.
ALL anxiety disorders have the same triggering underlying elements, FEAR, which originates from the fear centre of the brain (amygdala) responsible for the fight or flight response. Once you begin to address the fear, the amygdala begins normalising and in return it stops sending the false alarm signal to the rest of the brain. Eventually your anxiety, worries, obsessions, depression, panic, and phobias all begin to fade.
When there’s no fear, there’s no anxiety, its pretty simple. Remember, anxiety is just a state of mind!!
The reason people struggle with these problems is simple, Neural Networks are created when we become anxious or depressed which contribute to learnt habitual behaviour in reaction to past or new traumas. Coupled with the stress response which causes stress hormone secretion and the end result is anxiety and depression. We now know this can be addressed and anyone can fully recover.
We know that our chemicals change moment to moment, day by day depending on our diet, mood, stress and thinking patterns and therefore these ideas about chemical imbalances are actually false.
Nick Nicolaou Dip.Couns, Dip.Anxiety.Couns, (MISPC) (SFTR) (SHTC)
Member of The International Society of Professional Counsellors (ISPC)