Is anxiety in our genes? Some brainy stuff

Is your anxiety inherited? Is it purely innate — instinctual? Is it all from your environment and upbringing? Or is it a glorious mixture? Your anxiety is certainly associated with your neurological foundation, but your brain is amazingly adaptable.

You’ve got your mum’s nose, but have you got her personality?

“My mother was very nervous — it’s in my genes — it’s the way I’m hardwired”

With anxiety, the way you are hardwired (neurological / psycho-biological) is a factor, but unlike a computer, the brain is pliable and you can physically change its hardwiring by altering the software.

“The amygdala is a part of the brain. Its main function is the processing and speed of decision-making in conjunction with emotions. Outside stimuli reach the central nucleus of the amygdala instigating emotional responses, which then activate hormonal responses and motor behaviours or physical actions (1). There are a lot of variables in this process. ”

People are somewhere on a huge spectrum between having a fast-fire amygdala and a slow-burn amygdala.

“The hippocampus is another a part of the brain that links up short and long-term memory. It also predicts what is about to happen, immediately and in the future. ”

People are somewhere on a huge spectrum between having a well tuned hippocampus and a sluggish hippocampus.

Imagine someone on one end of the gauge with a sluggish hippocampus (she’s not sure how or when to react) and a quick fire amygdala (she doesn’t think — she catastrophises and flies into a panic attack).

Now, think of a person on the other end of the gauge with a mega efficient hippocampus (she can remember all the occasions this occurred before and can predict most future similar happenings spot on) and a slow burn amygdala (she assesses — reflects — acts in a relaxed manner).

I’m not a neurologist and this is a massive simplification, but it seems to me there is a kind of hypothetical ‘neurological anxiety bedrock’. That said, I believe that the brain alters and adapts incredibly depending upon the ongoing environment or society that particular brain is living in (2)(3). The physical brain also changes slightly every time it’s exposed to all those who’s, whats, wheres, whys and whens that happen in the immediate present (4).

“I suggest that everyone’s ‘neurological anxiety bedrock’ is different. That everyone’s amygdala, hippocampus and general neural circuitry is unique.”

Human evolution is continual and a fluid adaptation to our environment. Your brain is supple and perpetually evolves depending on your environment. If you are in a cold alien place your brain will adapt to that. If you are in a warm, friendly place your brain will adapt to that (5)(6). On top of that, I believe if anxious people search within themselves and become more self aware and self acceptant they will find their specific individual ‘warm friendly’ place.

If you are essentially true and kind to yourself and eventually unable to deny your experiences or deceive yourself then your brain’s functions will be less perturbed and your behavioural reactions will mellow (5)(6) (7).

Footnotes

  1. Rosenzweig, Breedlove and Leiman (2002)
  2. Stewart & Strathern (2002)
  3. Wilson (1975)
  4. Bandura (1961)
  5. Rogers (1951)
  6. Merry (2002)
  7. Rorty (1998)