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Anxiety. Is it all just a lot of bad news?

27th June, 2018

Jenni Newcombe



For quite some time we have been fed a diet of ‘bad’ news about anxiety and work-related stress. So, it’s not surprising we feel even just a bit jaded, if not anxious about anxiety. In the process of consuming the unhealthy data, we’ve become more worried, but not much wiser about what anxiety actually is; and we are no closer to understanding its ‘real’ causes.

However, with bad news come possibilities; with gaps we begin to construct bridges. And this is where the good news begins. When we study anxiety in the brain it can be understood like any other physical condition. With knowledge of anxiety in the brain we begin to understand ourselves better; we are empowered to find solutions. With this process we can become more compassionate as individuals and as organisations, and we develop self-compassion, which in itself is a step towards reducing any form of mental unwellness.

A recap of the bad news

Anxiety is on the rise. In fact, helpful or not, we have been told we have an anxiety ‘epidemic’. A poll commissioned by the American Psychiatric Association this year found that 39 per cent of adults are more anxious today than they were a year ago— a mind-blowing statistic. The same study reported that while anxiety continues to rise across all ages and demographic groups, women and ‘baby boomers’ experience the biggest rises.

I was surprised that baby boomers came out on top of the demographic data. In the UK, the polls, while showing increasing levels of anxiety across all demographic groups, produced data in which young adults (18—24-year olds) came out on top of the most anxious list. Despite increased awareness of mental health and more resources being utilised to tackle it, the bad news is that reported or perceived levels of anxiety are not on the decrease. It’s not good news, especially when we seem to still be making guesses, albeit educated ones, about the causes for the rise in levels of anxiety and work (and school) related stress.

Anxiety, we know, comes with a massive price tag. The UK Health and Safety Executive reported that in 2016/17, 12.5 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety. While the stats on anxiety have not been separated from these particular data, we know the three are all linked and often accompany each other.

According to Safe Work Australia, workplace stress (anxiety will, no doubt, be present for the majority amongst this data) cost the Australian economy $15 billion in 2016. Presenteeism and absenteeism is currently costing businesses in Australia in excess of $10 billion per year; 3.2 days are lost on average every year for every worker as a result of work-related stress.

Anxiety is personal. Most of us will either live with or know someone at work, or we may suffer from it ourselves. And, we know that the experience of anxiety has the potential to impact our wellbeing physically, emotionally, mentally and socially. We are well versed in the ‘symptoms’ but not so well-versed on the causes.

Anxiety in the brain—the good news

It’s been in the past two decades that neuroscientists have gained an understanding of how anxiety is represented in the brain. Prior to this, we relied largely on theories and evidence based on observable behaviour—this has its limits.

We know that the way anxiety is activated inside the brain is almost identical to fear activation. This is the very reason why we respond in similar ways when we are anxious—when there is no real threat—as we do when we are afraid and in actual danger. The triggers, though, are very different: fear is a response to imminent physical danger, whereas anxiety sneaks up on us from the future, and from triggers from the past, when there is no salient danger present.

Anxiety and fear originate in parts of the brain designed to respond to danger. Brain research has revealed two separate pathways responsible for creating anxiety and fear: one is a shortcut (for survival) while the other is the high road (on this pathway the brain has the capacity to ‘think’ and act using its arsenal of hormones and reasoning).

So to start, the senses initially pick up on a potential threat such as a scary noise, a disturbing feeling or a suspicious smell. At this point the message (neuron activation) then takes these two separate pathways. Along the shortcut pathway, the activation travels via the amygdala, which essentially alerts other brain regions. This creates the physical response – raised heart rate, increased blood pressure, sweat and adrenaline – even before the mind has registered the existence of a threat. After the fear response is triggered, the conscious mind becomes alerted and commences along the high road pathway. It responds by sending messages to the prefrontal cortex—the brain’s own control tower. This part of the brain is capable of determining whether and just when it’s safe to send out the ‘all clear’ signal to the amygdala to stop the physical alarm bells.

This high road route is also capable of signalling the body to produce stress hormones—cortisol. As an important aside, when it signals too much alarm, too much cortisol is produced which has the capacity to scramble the brain’s ability to organise memory—hence a very common symptom response: a complete failure to remember or to organise memory, such as in an exam.

Neuroimaging has enabled researchers to understand that anxiety can be traced to a breakdown in communication between parts of the brain on either or both of the pathways. Effectively, the brain fails to stop responding to fear. With this understanding, it’s possible to see that this failure is a physical issue, and not ‘all in the mind’. No fault can be attributed to the person when the brain has ‘short-circuited’.

The good news is that the brain is plastic which means that it can reroute neural pathways and reinvent the response. One example of this is the practice of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This shows how a person can take the high road pathway to reduce, if not abolish, their state of anxiety. Another example is in mindfulness training. A number of neuroimaging studies suggest that such training can lead to changes in the brain that regulate emotion and lessen the experience of anxiety.

Other neuroscientific studies found such practice produced improvement in concentration for people with anxiety. Researchers saw that whilst ‘worriers’ were able to complete a simple task as well as a ‘non-worrier’, they used much more energy to do so. Importantly, in the process they drained their potential for higher-level thinking capacity, which was not the case for the non-worriers.

What these studies provide is a greater understanding of ourselves. The use of creative application could serve to increase employee engagement, leading to reduced work-related stress and anxiety.

So, are you feeling less stressed or anxious about anxiety than when you first started reading? If so, this is evidence in itself of your capacity to change your own brain and to begin to understand yourself and your workplace just a little better.

Jenni Newcombe

Jenni Newcombe is chief neuroscience nerd at MindTrust (Kokoro Consulting Ltd). She works on the premise that understanding the brain can be harnessed for good – that this knowledge has the capacity to create informed organisational change and greater individual self-knowledge, but above all, to nurture self/compassion at work.

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