Emotions: where does anxiety come from?

According to an essay on psychology by Canestrari and Godino, an emotion is “a subjective event, an affective sensation that guides and individual’s conduct […] a feature and a characteristic of the ‘animalistic’ side of humankind”. Among the most common emotions human beings experience, the one that conditions us the most and often requires psychological counseling is undoubtedly anxiety.

 For a long time, up to Darwin, and even in the realm of pre-scientific psychology, emotions were considered a disturbance in humankind’s rational conduct. Today we know that, on the contrary, emotions are a fundamental part of rationality, because without emotions, human beings wouldn’t be… human. Emotions, such as joy, anger and fear constitute an adaptive mechanism that guarantees the survival of the species (both human and other animals). Anxiety itself can sometimes even save our lives, if in the adequate measure, dealt with correctly and fit for the situation. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case and anxious reactions are often blown out of proportion compared to the events that cause them, making it hard to work, study, and live.

The somatic location for emotions can be found in the deepest part of our brain, the limbic system (limbus means “ring” in Latin). Even further inside the brain there is a very small nucleus, the amygdala. The amygdala is necessary for the management of fear and anxiety, among other functions. You can see this tiny structure in the image below:

The amygdala is a central nucleus of the brain and it’s divided in two different parts, one on the right side and one on the left side. It functions as a kind of “control unit” and it’s connected to our affective states and our emotional memory, namely the process that allows us to assess the emotional meaning of events. The amygdala is therefore the archive for this type of memories. It functions as a kind of “psychological sentinel” during any event or experience, and it assesses whether we have to attack or avert as a reaction. In these situations, this small cerebral structure is able to block the rest of the brain for the most part, especially the most rational parts, which, as we all know, during anxious situations, gets overpowered with emotions and seems to become delirious. Am I in front of real danger or can I just relax? This is the question that the amygdala asks itself, analyzing the present through our past experiences.

The amygdala is connected with many other cerebral structures: for example, it’s able to alert the area that stimulates the secretion of the blood flow with the hormones that activate aggression or escape. It’s also connected to centers that allow the individual to move, so as to escape from a dangerous situation, with centers in the medulla oblongata that regulate the heart rate, with the trigeminal nerve and even more. There is a lot we don’t know about the amygdala, for instance which sections are connected to pleasurable emotions and which to unpleasant emotions. The amygdala is also connected to anger and pain.

According to an investigation of San Raffaele University in Milan, published on The Journal of Neuroscience, there seems to be a connection between the size of the amygdala and the emotions it produces. As for anxiety, it seems that its volume explains an individual’s likeliness to fall victim of states of anxiety. Already, I imagine how this discovery might be tampered with by some people, who would attempt to justify unfair or offensive behaviors by saying they have a “large amygdala”… “many a true word is spoken in jest”. Those who aren’t able to call themselves into question tend to allocate certain bad decisions to physical rather than psychological issues. Other than size, the amygdala is strongly influenced by genetic factors, the environment, and, last but not least, psychological factors. We tend to implement certain reactions rather than others because they are more familiar, more suitable, easier, and because our social environment makes them easier.

Let’s not forget that anxiety shows itself in countless different forms in our lives. For instance, it’s that feeling that prevents us from getting on a plane or, in its most severe forms, it can prevent us from leaving our homes. It makes us react impetuously before animals that make us afraid; it makes us feel a significant reduction of our hearing abilities whenever a teacher asks us a question in front of the whole class; it makes us devour our nails when we feel “slightly nervous”. The question we should ask ourselves is: do we want to keep living with this hour bomb that can explode at any moment and make certain events in our lives quite difficult (or even makes us avoid them)? Or do we want to try and confront ourselves with the distant origins of such visceral and automatic reactions? It’s up to you. Psychotherapy was born and continues to exist to face this problem, among others.

Translation by Marina Traylor

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