Psychoanalytic theories go a long way to explaining the roots of anxiety. For example, attachment theorists explain that it is essential for a mother to attach to her baby from birth. If a mother does not attach to her newborn, that baby may develop an insecure attachment which will manifest later in life as anxiety, avoidance and fear of intimacy.
This theory can now be explained on a biological level. A baby is born with the reptilian part of the brain fully developed. It is the reptilian brain that responds to an unsafe environment with physiological symptoms of anxiety.
The next level of the brain (called the paleomammilian complex) is semi-developed at birth. It develops fully over the first 10 months of a baby’s life but it needs a safe and supportive environment to develop well. If a mother does not attach securely to her baby, or ignores her baby’s cries, the development of this part of the brain will be compromised.
The primitive brain, once set off, will continue to fire indiscriminately until higher order centres can switch off the firing.
This has major ramifications for anxiety and how to treat it.
- Since the brain develops from the bottom to the top just like a tree, the most effective treatment for anxiety occurs when a bottom up approach is utilised.
- The first step in treatment is to have a safe and supportive environment. In practice, this implies that you must make sure you feel safe with your therapist.
- Practicing calming strategies regularly and often will assist your primitive brain to switch off. Just learning about a relaxation technique, but not repeating it regularly, will not diminish your anxiety.
- Repetition of new thoughts is vital to building new neural pathways. Discovering what your beliefs are is not enough to facilitate change. Repetition of new helpful thoughts over time will ensure a reduction in your anxious symptoms.
- Engage your smart brain (prefrontal cortex). When you are educated about anxiety and how to treat it, you can use your smart brain to help your primitive brain switch off.
In sum, understanding the biology of anxiety is very important for the development of effective treatments of anxiety and complying with them.