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.


 

Neuroscience and coaching. Neurocoaching for leadership – NeuroQuotient®

Being able to connect neuroscience and coaching is important for the people development, especially of the leadership. So, we can practice neurocoaching. We reviewed the path that led us to create NeuroQuotient®, the tool that makes it possible in a practical and efficient way. A path with high expectation, false myths, some frustration and, since a long time, with results.

A little history to place us.

Since the end of the last century advances in the understanding of the human brain and its relationship with behavior are being exponential. That is why, in the 21st century, it is essential to take advantage of this knowledge for people development. Therefore, the connection between neuroscience and coaching and leadership development is becoming more important.  By creating NeuroQuotient® we want to do it more understandable and practical.

Neuroimaging techniques such as fMRI (functional nuclear magnetic resonance) allow us to observe which brain centers are activated when we perform a certain task. From here, neuroeconomics and neuromarketing have been developed, for example. In both cases we try to answer the question: what happens in the brain when we make decisions?

Anyway, these studies do nothing more than confirm the previous work, of psychobiology, carried out in laboratory animals. This is because the brain structures are very well preserved from one species to another. Our brain is not very different from that of a guinea pig. Except for the prefrontal cortex (CPF), naturally. The motivational and memory limbic centers are similar. The neuroimaging techniques have allowed to observe in a non-invasive way the connection of these centers with the PFC.

Do not confuse the neuroscience and coaching binomial with neurolinguistic programming (NLP)

It is important to make clear that when talking about neuroscience and coaching, about neurocoaching, we are not referring to NLP (neurolinguistic programming) applied to the people development.

John Grinder and Richard Bandler, the creators of NLP, were successful to use the word ‘neuro’ to name the result of their work. And it is that the ‘neuro’ attracts, it helps to sell. However, NLP is not neuroscience. But, taking advantage of its slipstream, a first version of neuromarketing and a first neurocoaching emerged. More than one has signed up for NLP looking for neuroscience, right?

With this we do not say that NLP is not useful to connect neuroscience and coaching. Once the cerebral bases of behavior are understood, NLP techniques can be very useful for the leadership development.

Our approach to neuroscience and coaching.

In 2001, 19 years ago, we began our journey as coaching professionals and, simultaneously, in NLP. Since then we were looking for the connection between neuroscience and coaching, the neurocoaching, thinking about applying it to the leadership development.

On this path there are some culminating points, which are not the final ones, which are a master’s degree in neuroscience (2009-2010) and the creation of NeuroQuotient (2010-2103). Anyway, we want to point out some milestones, in the form of books, that we now remember as important and that can help us in this connection between coaching and neuroscience and leadership development. Above all, in what we consider key: the need to be able to understand the brain foundations of human behavior; and the connection of the limbic centers with the prefrontal cortex.

Although, these books are only references that have been helping us to confirm that we were on the right track. Actually, the information we used for the creation of NeuroQuotient were basic neuroscience articles and reviews. Case apart is the book,

James J. Gross (editor). Habdbook of Emotion Regulation. The Guilford Press, 2007

that we can define as a great compilation of reviews and articles that was essential in the generation of NeuroQuotient®.

As for the books, in order of reading.

Nolasc Acarín. El cerebro del rey. Una introducción apasionante a la conducta humana. RBA libros SBA, Barcelona 2001

Joe Dispenza. Evolve your brain, 2008

David Rock. Your brain at work. Strategies for overcoming distraction, regaining focus and working smarter all day allong. Harper Collins Publishers, 2008

Amy Brann. Make Your Brain Work. How to maximaze Your Efficiency, Productivity and Effectiviness. Kogan Page Limited, 2013

Joaquín M. Fuster. The Neuroscience of Freedom and Creativity. Cambridge University Press, 2013

and, finally, one that we discovered just when writing this post. by its title it is the most pertinent to establish the nexus between neuroscience and coaching,

Amy Brann. Neuroscience for Coaches. How to Use the Latest Insights for the Benefit of Your Clients. Kogan Page, 2017

This book does not fall into our hands until now, because since 2013 we have been using NeuroQuotient®  to make the conection between neuroscience and coaching for the development of leadership. But, sure, we will learn a lot from it.

A little dopamine and a lot of serotonin.

When we talk about neuroscience and coaching, it is very likely that the first thing that comes to mind are neurotransmitters. The molecules that facilitate the connection between neurons in neuronal synapses.

If we did a survey we can be sure that the neurotransmitters most cited would be serotonin and dopamine. Then, perhaps, oxytocin and adrenaline, although these two are more neurohormones than neurotransmitters.

And this, why? Well, because both with dopamine, and serotonin the simple word conveys a meaning to us. We do not have to study hard. Their names suggest their functionality. An erroneous assumption, but it seems that we understand it. Perhaps other neurotransmitters, such as glutamate or GABA or acetylcholine, are more important, but at the outset, they do not tell us anything directly.

dopamine sounds like ‘dopping’ and pleasure. serotonin to tranquility. there we have another case of marketing success, how the nlp. especially, with serotonin.

Everything is much more complicated. the brain has between 50 and 100 billion neurons!

And for coaching and neuroscience, the direct and easy path (our mind seeks simplicity) is to think that it can be enough to increase dopamine and serotonin. The connection between coaching and neuroscience would thus become almost pharmacological. Take a pill and you are done!

But it is much more complicated. The brain has between 50 and 100 billion neurons. Of dopamine there are many types of receptors, for instance.

On the other hand, dopamine starts the reward system, but does not generate pleasure. It is part of the motivation process of behaviors that can generate pleasure.

For example, when a dog perceives a bone, its spices memory indicates that it is a signal of reward. Dopamine is in the motivation of action to eat the bone, not in pleasure (endorphins are responsible for this). If the bone is poisoned the result will not be exactly pleasant.

Do not forget, in addition, that dopamine is also part of the mesocortical pathway of the reward system. This way favors the focus of attention towards the ‘object of desire’ that has awakened the reward system.

Not always a lot of serotonin is suitable.

On the other hand, the word serotonin transmits serenity. In addition, we are prescribed serotonin enhancers (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, SSRI) to treat depression. Fuoxetine (Prozac), for example.

However, they do not tell us the paradox of serotonin.

They do not explain to us that people genetically more prone to depression have less effective serotonin reuptakers. That is, they have more free serotonin. We finally understood it, after giving it many laps, thanks de Gordon Book chapter 6 “ James J. Gross (editor). Habdbook of Emotion Regulation. The Guilford Press, 2007. (On “Genetics of Emotion Regulation” pag. 110 and “the 5-HTTLPR-SSRI Paradox pag. 124 (Ahmad R. Hariri, Erika E. Forbes)”.

So, everything is much more complicated! It is not enough to identify the role of some key neuro transmitters! It is not easy to connect neuroscience and coaching for leadership development. For this reason, to simplify it, with NeuroQuotient® we identify what is most relevant within this complexity.

Facilitate awareness. A very important coaching competence. How to enhance it with coaching and neuroscience, with neurocoaching?

Creating Awareness is the 8th coaching competence according to the ICF. They define it like: ‘Integrating and accurately evaluating multiple sources of information and making interpretations that help the client to gain awareness and thereby achieve agreed-upon results’.

And we ask ourselves, how could we use the connection between neuroscience and coaching to facilitate awareness?

In coaching, especially when it comes to leadership development, tools are used to facilitate awareness. Some are about the personality and quite a few of them we have seen in this blog. DISC, MBTI, Discovery Insights, Enneagram, Only in DISC, William Moulton Marston, its creator, thought about a far connection with the neuroscience.

So, we proposed, at the beginning of 2009, to create a tool to connect coaching and neuroscience.

For this it was essential to have clear the fundamentals of neuroscience. Then, try to identify what is key, to be able to define a simple structure (a model) that will sustain the relationship between brain and behavior.

The first point was addressed with a master’s degree in Psychobiology and Cognitive Neuroscience. The second, studying basic neuroscience, trying to find the fundamental brain systems that simplify complexity.

And, at the end of 2011 many ideas of what we had studied from previous years, not only of neuroscience, crystallized in a first structure for the model. (The key elements for this ‘fusion’ of ideas will be discussed in another post).

What does NeuroQuotient® bring us in the neuroscience and coaching connection?

In mid-2014 the web application was running. With it, those of us dedicated to the development of people, especially of the leadership, can connect neuroscience and coaching. After Certifying in NeuroQuotient®, we can send questionnaires to clients and then interpret the results and prepare the reports, which are derived from their answers.

The main contributions of NeuroQuotient can be seen on this website or participating in one of the free introductory workshops). Or, better, contact us and we will provide you with the information you require (+ info).

Anyway, the fundamental contribution is that it helps us connect neuroscience and coaching. NeuroQuotient is a tool based on neuroscience and with a coaching approach.

It facilitates a quick awareness of the brain processes that help each one to satisfaction and leadership.

The customers answer about their current and desired status. Comparing both, they easily perceive which is the priority where to focus his action for a more efficient development.

NeuroQuotient® is the neuro tool of the coach to boost better, faster and easier the satisfaction of their clients.

Neuroscience and coaching. Neurocoaching for leadership - NeuroQuotient
Fig 1. NeuroQuotient® graphics. Efficacies (color) and Limitations (gray). People want to increase Efficiencies and decrease Limitations