The Physiology of Anxiety
“Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me?” -Psalm 42:5
It’s okay to ask “why?” The challenge is resting in periods of silence from heaven. It’s easy to sing “farther along we’ll know all about it”, quite another thing to be at peace with that “farther along” period. In the verse above, the Psalmist seems desperate to know what’s going on with him. He was “disquieted” within (unsettled, noisy).
When it comes to anxiety, the question “why?” is more complicated than you might guess. It’s too easy to default to “lack of faith”. I know this, because I had the same default setting as a ministerial “counselor”. “Be careful for nothing!” While most anxiety issues may have some element of lack of faith as a root cause, it is important to dig deeper. Certain experiences and/or traumas may have biased the sufferer’s brain toward irrational reactions. That’s why it’s important to consider how the brain is supposed to work.
We are body, soul, spirit. Let’s not neglect the physical as we tend to the spiritual.
Think of our brains as a choir. It has a number of sections, even sub-sections. Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass are the main parts, but there are also 1st & 2nd sopranos, contraltos, and so on. The choir director’s job is to make sure the sections work together properly. Sometimes more energy or volume is needed from certain sections.
Our brains have different sections which serve different functions. The amygdala regulates our emotions. The hippocampus forms and stores memories. The thalamus receives sensory information. The hypothalamus jump starts the panic response (fight or flight). The prefrontal cortex, the rational brain, is the choir director. It keeps all the sections in balance. Sometimes, as needed, balance is thrown out. This is all wonderfully designed by God. Sometimes the brain has trouble coming back into proper balance. It is when the balance is upset that we move into the realm of disorders and serious emotional difficulty.
To illustrate, imagine you’re out in the community for outreach, you hear a barking dog around a corner. The thalamus is responsible for receiving that information and will typically send that information to the prefrontal cortex to be processed rationally. The prefrontal cortex reaches into the hippocampus and, with the help of stored memories, is able to recognize the bark of a poodle.
But not all of our brains work the same way. For some, the thalamus will send the information to the amygdala, where an emotional response will bypass rational processing. Then the amygdala may activate the hypothalamus which sends a surge of stress hormones coursing through the body. The body is now in a panic and prepared to either fight or flee.
To fight or flee … from a poodle.
I’ve actually seen this happen. Some people just have an irrational fear of dogs. It is not a lack of faith that has caused this. Maybe it was a bad experience with an animal as a young child. Or some other traumatic event left an emotional scar that triggers reaction rather than rationality.
The stress response is normal and beneficial. Blood pressure rises to insure adequate blood flow in case of a wound. Breathing and heart rate become more rapid to expedite the delivery of oxygen and adrenaline throughout the body. Muscles tense up in preparation for a physical struggle. Resources are shifted away from digestion, which can cause nausea and vomiting. Eventually, as the danger passes, the body will bring itself back to a healthy baseline.
But the longer the body stays in this state of elevated stress, the harder it becomes for the body to return to that baseline. Chronic stress is public enemy #1 when it comes to our mental health. It is of utmost importance that we all find proper balance in our lives. Stress moves the balance of power from the choir director (prefrontal cortex) to rogue sections (amygdala, hypothalamus). Rational thought gives way to emotional reactionism.
The body likes to keep everything at consistent levels. This is called stasis. Temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, sleep patterns, hormones, etc.. Sometimes extraordinary circumstances or even wrong thinking can change a baseline to an unhealthy level. There’s even a study out that has shown prolonged “resentment” (bitterness?) can actually change the physiology of the brain.
The advancements in neuroscience and brain imaging are amazing! The human brain is probably the most complex thing God designed. Being able to use real science has helped to enhance our lives in many ways. Real science is never a threat to the Bible. It can shed some important light on it and even help us defend it.
Please think of these first two posts as an important foundation as we consider risk factors, causes and, most importantly, The Climb out of anxiety. We must remember that while we are to be a people of faith, Jesus is very understanding of our unbelief. And it can be very helpful to understand what’s happening physiologically with our anxiety. Not to use that as an excuse, but to leverage that knowledge into a deeper, more practical, understanding of the scriptures.