Stress, anxiety and neuroscience. When anxious we escape faster with a fear stimulus.

In this post we will see the relationship between stress, anxiety and neuroscience. That is, the brain foundations of anxiety and stress. We will start by dealing about the relationship between anxiety and stress. So far in this blog we had only talked about stress. To do all this, we will refer to an article summarized in Neuroscience News, which explains that we, when anxious, exaggerate the response to the fear cues.

In this post we are going to focus on the fundamentals of anxiety in neuroscience. Also, we will deal about anxiety and stress: Its similarities and differences, and the existing relationships between anxiety and stress.

In previous articles, from NeuroQuotient®, we have already written about stress and neuroscience. Mainly, about self-induced stress (reducing or not increasing stress?). We have also seen how to manage stress. Specifically, how to avoid increasing it (learning not to increase stress with the neuroscience).

We had pending to discuss about the relationship between stress, anxiety and neuroscience. The decision to get into it has come when reading the summary of Neuroscience News: Anxious people quicker to flee danger.

This summary is about an article by Boweng J. Fung et al, Slow escape decisions are swayed by trait anxiety. Published in Nature Human Behavior.

This article helps us to confirm our ideas regarding anxiety and neuroscience. On the one hand, which are the brain centers involved in anxiety. On the other hand -the NeuroQuotient® point of view- that some cognitive processes, which we are very good at, can limit us. For example, wanting to stop anxiety, we get the opposite. In the final part of the post we will comment it thoroughly.

In this blog we talk more about stress than anxiety.

If in previous posts we have focused on stress and not anxiety and neuroscience, it is because the NeuroQuotient® tool and, consequently, this blog is more focused on coaching and in business contexts. They are also very appropriate for psychology and life coaching, but less for psychiatry and medicine.

Our purpose is to provide tools to coaches and psychologists, to help their clients to increase their satisfaction and self-leadership. In this case, for example, managing stress better; one of the most common problems of our society. When it comes to psychiatric issues, like anxiety disorders, we prefer to make way for psychiatric professionals.

In the same way that professionals define themselves in the opposite direction. One of the referents in psychiatry on the subject of anxiety is the Dr. Antoni Bulbena. In his book  Ansiedad. Neuro conectividad: La Re-evolución, says textually: ‘Stress is a word very used in popular language but that professionals tend to use little’.

In NeuroQuotient we leave, then, psychiatric disorders for professionals. However, we must not forget that to determine the key brain systems in human behavior, we asked ourselves the following question: What are the brain centers and pathways involved in the most frequent disorders? What happens in depression, in ADD, etc. Also, in anxiety disorders. That’s why we can easily understand the relationship between anxiety and neuroscience.

Anxiety and stress according to professionals.

What do the experts tell us?

The SEAS, Spanish Society for Anxiety and Stress, in the questions and answers section, tell us about anxiety as an emotion. ‘An unpleasant emotion … that arises in a situation in which the individual perceives a threat (possible negative consequences). To confront this situation and try to reduce the negative consequences the individual must put him/her-self on alert.

It is shown at different levels,

At the cognitive-subjective level, … it is characterized by feelings of discomfort, worry, hypervigilance, tension, fear, insecurity, feeling of loss of control, perception of strong physiological changes (cardiac, respiratory, etc.).

At the physiological level, … it is characterized by the activation of different systems, mainly the Autonomic Nervous System and the Motor Nervous System. Although others are also activated, such as the Central Nervous System, or the Endocrine System, or the Immune System …

At the motor or observable level, … it manifests as motor restlessness, hyperactivity, repetitive movements, difficulties in communication (stuttering), avoidance of feared situations, consumption of substances (food, drink, tobacco, etc.), crying, tension in the facial expression, etc. ‘

Following with the SEAS. Regarding stress, they explain …

‘Currently stress is interpreted as an interactive process, in which the demands of the situation and the resources of the individual to face the situation are at stake. The demands of the situation depend on the subjective assessment that the individual makes about how this situation will affect their interests. Therefore, the same situation can be much more stressful for one individual than for another.
In turn, coping resources are also valued by the individual himself, who may judge them inadequate, although they really are not. This bias in the valuation of own resources will also cause a greater reaction of stress, a greater overload, and a worse use of own resources.’
 

What they see between anxiety and stress in the SAES (Spanish Society for Anxiety and Stress)

‘Does anxiety and stress could be used as synonyms?

‘In many cases the terms anxiety and stress are used as synonyms, however, there are different fields of work in research and professional practice, although certainly with some overlaps.

Stress is a process in which the individual faces the demands of an important situation for him. This process can trigger an anxiety reaction, which is an unpleasant emotion that arises in the face of a possible threat.
However, stress can also trigger other emotional reactions other than anxiety, for example: joy, satisfaction, anger, sadness, etc.

And how do we see in NeuroQuotient this relationship between anxiety and stress?

In our interpretation we are going to relate stress, anxiety and neuroscience. Let’s see:

In the face of an actual (or imagined) threat, the brain amygdala that is part of the threat (or fear) system is activated. Then, the stress system is put in place to be able to fight (cope with the threat) or flee.

Stress is related to the autonomic nervous system (ANS). In stress, the sympathetic branch of SNA (adrenaline) activates to trigger energy and fight or flight. The heart beats faster, the bronchi expand, the muscles tense, etc. But, at the same time, the parasympathetic branch of the SNA, slows down.

The parasympathetic branch helps the recovery of energy. It facilitates, for example, the secretion of saliva, and digestion; rest, closing the pupils and the bronchi. Therefore, when we are stressed (with the SNA parasympathetic branch less active) some symptoms can appear: dry mouth, digestive problems, difficulty to sleep, etc.

But, as we told, in humans the threats, the stimuli of fear, can be imagined (‘we imagine lions where there are none’) or exaggerated (‘we turn mice into lions’). In this case, our prefrontal cortex (CPF) intervenes interpreting the situations. When the tendency to pay attention to small dangers, real or imagined, and to interpret them negatively and with exaggeration, we can talk about anxiety. If this is accompanied of stress symptoms, of course.

In addition, normally, humans in a social situation do not fight or flee physically. Our Motor Nervous system are not fully activated. Therefore, we do not release the energy triggered by the stress system and we can end up somatizing it.

Also, when permanently stressed, not only are we on alert, but the stress slow way is set in motion. The stress way of cortisol. Cortisol, among other functions, consumes the body’s reserves to release more energy, and we end up exhausted.

And to all of this we can add the negative interpretation of the physical signals of stress.

If we tend to be anxious, we negatively interpret the physical signs of somatized stress, very likely. We have, then, another source of imagined and/or exaggerated threat. The consequence is, therefore, more anxiety and stress.

Thus, from NeuroQuotient, we see the fundamental characteristics of anxiety in the exaggerated and negative interpretation of the stimuli of fear (sometimes imagined) and body stress signals. The origin of anxiety is, then, in our thinking ability.

With all of this, we are more alert and more prepared to activate the stress system. And the loop is negatively reinforced.

And, when this tendency and symptoms are very high we can fall into a …

Generalized anxiety disorder

Let’s see what the NHI, National Institute of Mental Heath, tells us about Generalized Anxiety Disorder:

‘People with generalized anxiety disorder are extremely worried or very nervous about … many … things, even when there is little or no reason to worry. It is not easy for them to … control their anxiety and stay focused on daily activities

What are the signs and symptoms of GAD?

GAD develops slowly. It often starts during the teen years or young adulthood. People with GAD may:

  • Worry very much about everyday things
  • Have trouble controlling their worries or feelings of nervousness
  • Know that they worry much more than they should
  • Feel restless and have trouble relaxing
  • Have a hard time concentrating
  • Be easily startled
  • Have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Feel easily tired or tired all the time
  • Have headaches, muscle aches, stomach aches, or unexplained pains
  • Have a hard time swallowing
  • Tremble or twitch
  • Be irritable or feel “on edge”
  • Sweat a lot, feel light-headed or out of breath
  • Have to go to the bathroom a lot.

Summarizing, what we told before: a high tendency to imagine, interpret and anticipate negatively (worry). With activation, consequently, of almost permanent stress. Together with stress somatization, which we also interpret in a negative way.

When they have time to think, people with anxiety react more quickly to fear cues.

Let’s finish with the article by Boweng J. Fung et al., which we quoted at the beginning:

Slow escape decisions are swayed by trait anxiety. Published in Nature Human Behavior.

And with its summary in Neuroscience News: Anxious people quicker to flee danger.

In the essays, the participants were presented with a stimulus of fear, simulated in a computer game. Half of these participants had a high level of anxiety, evaluated according to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

In a first essay, the virtual threat ((the fear stimulus) appeared suddenly. There was no time to make a rational decision (quick escape decision). In this case all the people, whether they had anxiety or not, ‘escaped’ quickly.

However, when the fear stimulus appear farther away, and they had time to evaluate it (slow escape decision), participants with anxiety escaped earlier.

That is, when they have time to think, people with anxiety react more quickly to fear stimuli.

All this reaffirms us in that the origin of the anxiety is in the dysfunctional use of the ability to think that we humans have. Let’s see it

The article confirms us which are the brain centers that participate in the anxiety circuit. The centers and pathways involved in the anxiety and neuroscience relationship are the vmPFC (ventromedial prefrontal cortex), the amygdala (limbic center of the threat system) and the hippocampus (memory center).

The amygdala, as we said above, is the one that, after its activation, starts the sympathetic autonomic nervous system (stress) to fight or escape.

How do we see all this from NeuroQuotient? How do we think the stress, anxiety and neuroscience relationship works?

Our hypothesis is that, we learn, we anticipate, we plan, etc. to be able to think that we have resources to calm the amygdala (see how not to increase stress). To believe our-selves prepared to be able to send a message of calm from the vmPFC to the interspersed GABA neurons of the amygdala. The GABA neurons  prevents from activating the central amygdala. A message saying something like ‘I am prepared to face the future uncertainty’.

This is a skill of rational people, who are very accustomed to using the prefrontal cortex. An ability that many times can turn against us.

It turns against us when the preparation is excessive and negative. ‘When we imagine lions where there will never be lions’ or when with our thought ‘we turn mice into lions’. Wanting to calm the fear, we achieve the opposite. We generate our own anxiety. We are almost permanently on alert. With the stress system sensitized, ready to attack or flee.

What happens with anxious people when a cue  of fear (actual or simulated as in the experiment) appears, and they have time to evaluate it?

Well, the circuit vmPFC, memory, and amygdala turn on. We are searching in memory the strategy that, supposedly, we have prepared for this situation, to be able to send the calm message to the amygdala.

However, having, on the one hand, threat and stress systems sensitized, ready to respond. Together, on the other hand, that the emotional limbic part works much faster than the rational part. Then, the result is that people with anxiety escape sooner, before finding the solution in memory.


 

Reducing stress or not increasing stress?

In this article we inquire ourselves about which option is better: reducing stress or not increasing it. Stress, or rather distress (when it is very high and persistent) is an evil of our time. Understanding its neurological fundations we will see that many times we exaggeratedly increase it with our own perception and interpretation of situations. Understanding the neuroscience of behavior we become aware that sometimes we are limiting ourselves. The NeuroQuotient® helps us to do it.

Frequently, we want to lower our stress

A few days ago, when preparing a coaching session, we saw that a person asked us to discuss about more techniques and exercises to reduce stress.

He said something like this: ‘I practice sports and meditation, but I’m not able to reduce my stress to an acceptable level. Quite the opposite, I think it is increasing ‘.

It’s clear that we are talking about ‘distress’, excessive stress, almost chronic stress. The one that manifests itself in a series of unpleasant bodily sensations and in difficulty to concentrate and rest. Either it is hard for us to sleep or we fall exhausted and after two or three hours we are with our eyes wide open.

Often the main source of stress is oneself

How do we cause or cause stress to increase?

Shortly after starting the session we asked to the person who wanted to reduce the stress: How do you do it to increase your stress?

We can measure the sensation of stress on a scale of 1 to 10. We consider 1 to 5 adequate, above 5 to 7 worrying and 8 to 10 serious. The 0 does not make sense, it is not a reasonable level, the day we achieve it we will not be at all.

Someone in a constant sense of stress of 8 or 9, doing regular coping exercises, it seems clear that they have an internal source of stress.

It is logical that in a fire, in an earthquake, in a terrorist attack, in the face of a loss, etc. we feel stressed. But the person of the example, neither the present, nor in the past, had any similar situation.

There was not present, what we used to call, a relevant external stressors. It just happened, as in many cases, that the main source of stress was internal. An external trigger could exist, but the own perception was very much important.

 What are the neurological bases of stress?

The brain system of threat or fear

To understand it better, let’s see what happens in the brain, and in the body, with stress.

Stress is born in the system of fear or threat. With animals we prefer to talk about threat and in humans of fear. Fear is an emotion, the result of the interpretation of the situations and the corresponding sensations.

Let’s start with the animals and quite the same will be valid for the human animal.

What is the purpose of the threat system?

Simply, the species survival based on minimizing damage and pain.

When the animal perceives with its senses a signal that, its species memory, indicates that it is a threat, it can respond in different ways: Fighting, if it can cope with it or flighting, if the threat is greater than its possibilities.

We leave aside a third option here: standing still, freezing, which we have already seen earlier, more associated with depression in humans.

At the center of the threat system are the amygdalae. The sensory signal reaches the basolateral zone of the amygdala and, from there, goes to the central zone that connects with the autonomic nervous system, activating the sympathetic branch and braking the parasympathetic branch.

The animal is ready to attack or flee! So much goes for both. Depends on what the memory indicates, the amygdalae are the same and what comes next, too.

The fast and slow pathways of stress. The autonomic nervous system and cortisol

The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system secretes adrenaline (epinephrine) in the core of the adrenal glands. The adrenaline passes into the blood, increasing the heart rate, increasing blood pressure, dilatating the pupils, opening the bronchi, etc. This is the fast, immediate path of stress. The one that facilitates fighting or the flighting.

After about 10 minutes, the slow path of stress begins to work. That of glucocorticoids (cortisol in humans). Cortisol is secreted in the cortex of the adrenal glands. Mainly it serves to generate energy from the reserves of the body (fats and proteins)

The slow way replaces the lack of activity of the parasympathetic branch, whose function is to favor the recovery of energy with rest and digestion: lowering the heart rate, contracting the bronchi, closing the pupils, promoting salivation, etc.

We usually talk about sympathetic activation and we forget parasympathetic deactivation. But symptoms like dry mouth, difficulty breathing, digestive problems, eyes open at night, etc., are very frequent, right? These symptoms lead us to think that we need to lower our stress.

On the other hand, the slow pathway has few opportunities for activity in animals. At 10 minutes the gazelle or has fled the lion, or very bad for the gazelle. If only it were wounded and hidden, then corticosteroids would go into action to facilitate its recovery.

It is important to point out that between the basolateral and the central amygdala there are neurons interspersed with the neurotransmitter GABA that can stop the activation of the central amygdala. In the next article we will discuss methods of coping with stress “Stress management. Learn not to increase stress from neuroscience “, we will talk deeply about it.

And in the most human part? How do we influence the fear system?

What has been seen so far is valid for humans also. We have already introduced it when talking about the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system.

The difference is in the higher prevalence of the prefrontal cortex (PFC). With which we think and direct attention. The one that differentiates us in more or less extention from the other mammals.

Thanks to the PFC, humans do not distinguish between what we perceive, what we imagine or remember. That is, the signals that reach the amygdala often have internal origin or, at least, are interpreted by the PFC.

With high worry, self-demand and perfectionism (when all details are very important), with the interpretation of situations, we can focus on exaggerated dangers, which are only in our mind. We self-generate fear and start the ‘flighting’ side of the threat system. On the other hand, wanting to achieve very high and short-term results, we see obstacles in the way and put ourselves in a position of ‘fighting’ towards others.

Then, with attention and thought we may activate the central amygdala and the sympathetic nervous system and brake the parasympathetic one.

Also, when we put ourselves in ‘flighting’ mode we do not run away. Why run? There is no a lion by there.

And stress appears. Tachycardia and dilated pupils, in a continuous state of alertness (very active sympathetic system) and feelings of suffocation, dry mouth, difficulty sleeping, digestive problems (parasympathetic system slow down).

When stress is persistent, long-lasting, anxiety appears. With the fast and slow pathways (cortisol) permanently working.

By putting ourselves in a fighting position, we do release energy. This is why sport works to reduce stress.

Some humans with great tendency to ‘fight’, do not accumulate stress because they expel all of it. Great for them and worse for the people nearby.

But it is not usual. After all, the fight and flight brain pathways are the same.

What is our specific case? Do we need to reduce stress because we tend to increase it ourselves?

We imagine that now there is little doubt as to how stress is generated and that, in many cases, the main source may be internal. And that, in general, for good management rather than thinking about reducing stress, it is more efficient to try not to increase it.

It is important to emphasize that not all brains and human bodies are equally sensitive to stress. Consequently, not everyone has the same need to manage it, because we do not feel it with the same intensity. Some people are more resilient and are less affected by external stressors.

In those who do feel stress intensely, often an important error happens: We try to manage it with thought, with the PFC. And, then, being so aware of the body sensations and by worrying, the result is the opposite to the desired one.

Well, considering the neurological basis of stress, in the next article we will look for ideas to manage it. To not increase stress or to reduce stress.

But, always the first step is awareness. With NeuroQuotient it is easy to detect the greater or lesser level of stress, the greater or lesser resilience, the tendency to fight or to flight and find ways, new neuro behaviors, to manage stress. It is about developing self-leadership.

 

 

The NLP Time line (Neuroscience and NLP series – 1)

The NLP time line we could say that is the result of how we structure the perception of time in the brain.

How can the NLP time line help us?What is our type of the NLP time line?Is it worth changing it?

Neuroscience and NLP series – Neuro-linguistic Programming

Some time ago I had a lot of interest in approaching the NLP Time Line. It is a good topic to start a series of articles relating NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) with neuroscience and the fundamentals of behaviour in the brain.

NLP talks about brain software, about mental programs. Would it be interesting to connect this software with the hardware? That is, to link the programs with the brain substrates; with neuroscience. In this way, we could better understand the brain foundations of behaviour.

This is something that Neuroquotient® can do for us.To see it, we will start, then, by connecting the NLP time line with the brain.

A model within NLP. The NLP Time line

We could say that Neurolinguistic Programming is constituted by a series of techniques and models for personal development and improvement.Techniques derived from modeling experts with special success in these fields.

One of these models and / or techniques is the NLP Time line.

In a simple way, the NLP time line deals with how the brain organizes events (past, present and future).If the human brain can remember, perceive and imagine, it must somehow organize itself to distinguish one thing from another.

Our first foray into NLP in 2001 (just before training as a Practitioner) was through the book ‘ Introduction to NLP’ by Joseph O’Connor and John Seymour . They make reference to the NLP time line quoting the book ‘ Time line Therapy and the Basis of Personallity ‘ by Tad James and Wyatt Woodsmall.

An exercise to determine the type of our NLP Time line

Then, in the NLP workshop, they asked us to conduct an exercise to help us figure out our NLP Time line.

The exercise is about remembering and imagine several situations and then they try to see where our images are placed in the space outside us.

A guide to find these pictures in our memory and imagination can be as follows:

‘Remember a breakfast when you went to the elementary school.

Then, remember a breakfast during the last holidays

Think of breakfast this morning.

Imagine having a breakfast during the next holidays.

Finally, imagine a breakfast when you are very old, after retiring.

It is very likely that for each situation you see an image, where are these images placed?

Before going on reading, we could spend some time doing this exercise.In this way we won’t be conditioned by the explanations that follow.The exercise will be useful to know in what type of the NLP time line we are.

Doing the previous exercise and after reading the text that follows, we can answer the question What type of the NLP time line we get closer?

The two most frequent types of the NLP time lines: ‘through time’ and ‘in time’

Tad James describes two most common types of NLP time line:

‘through time’ and ‘in time’

PNL y la linea del tiempo
Left ‘through time’: projecting and perceiving past present and future at the same time. Right ‘in time’ the moment in which the mind is focused (past, present or future) in the foreground prevents perceiving the rest.

In the first case (‘through time’) people perceive the images forming a more or less opened parable. With the present in front, and near, of the person, the past to the left and the future to the right.Past and future more distant the further away the present moment is.

In the second case (‘in time’) the future is what we can perceive in front and the past behind.

Since the first time I did the exercise, we have asked many people around us to do it.We find two types of perceptions of the NLP time line that, we might say, are very majority.

A perception, ‘through time’, exactly as described by Tad James. (‘over time’)Images in front of the person, arranged along a parabola.

And another perception when people can only see an image at the same time and in front of us. As if we had a collection of photos and we were seeing them one by one. The one in view hides the others. It is not identical to what Tad James describes, but we will call this type of perception in the same way, ‘in time’.

Influence on behaviour of the time perception according the NLP time line.

Do the types of time perception regarding the NLP time line influence the way each person behaves?

We could say, without being afraid to be wrong, that yes.

We can observe that people with perception ‘through time’ have a greater tendency to structure thoughts and to establish causal connections (influence of the past, in the present and the future).They tend to plan and usually have a high motivation for studying and learning.It seems logical, learning helps to feel prepared to face the uncertainty of the future.

Conversely, people with perception ‘in time’, have a higher focus to the present and they easily jump from one idea to another, with a tendency to lateral thinking. They are more motivated by creative tasks and by the variety of them.In addition, they express their thoughts more spontaneously.

Now we can check if our neuro behaviours are according with the type of the NLP time line that we have identified with the previous exercise.

From now on we can open many questions up:

What are the brain fundamentals of the NLP time line?

What type is better for each one of us?Is it worth changing?

How could we improve, if we believe it necessary?

In the next post we can see the possible answers that we can find to move forward together.