QUICK LOOK: Childhood Anxiety Could Physically Change The Brain

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Childhood Anxiety Could Physically Change The Brain by Lindsay Holmes

Before I post my recap of my blog series on Marshmallows, Brain Plasticity and Attachment, I’d like to draw your attention to the article above, which just came across my desk. It provides evidence that supports one of the ideas I presented in my last blog post. Holmes’ article contains the following quote:

Researchers from Yale, Duke and Vanderbilt universities examined children’s brains over the course of five years and found long-lasting neurobiological effects in those with an anxiety disorder (which includes generalized anxiety, social phobia and separation anxiety). The study showed there was weaker connectivity in the brains of these children between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, two regions that interact to play an important role in regulating anxiety, the Yale Daily News reported.

In my last post I made the following statement:

When an overall organic system begins to break down under stress, the various subsystems may begin to operate autonomously according to their own scripts or stories. Autonomous subsystems? Is this a form of brain plasticity? It should be but brain plasticity discussions typically do not take on a systems perspective.

As Holmes’ article points out, early trauma or untoward stress can lead to “weaker connectivity in the brains of these children between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, two regions that interact to play an important role in regulating anxiety.” The two regions are essentially the middle brain—home to our early warning system, the amygdala—and the the upper brain—home to our so-called rational frontal lobes. According to Bertalanffy’s organic systems theory, when organic systems are not able to work together (e.g., are able to build strong connections) these systems will often work in autonomous fashions according to their own stories and scripts. The job of the therapist, then, is to get these organic systems to work together. No easy task because autonomous systems born from trauma or untoward stress are hard to change.

Here’s an interesting aside. Allow me to draw your attention to the following article:

Scientists Tested Therapy Against Antidepressants — Here’s What They Found by Erin Brodwin

Brodwin’s article makes an interesting point: Antidepressants work mainly on the middle brain, home to the amygdala, the brain’s fear center. In contrast, cognitive behavioral therapy works mainly on the upper brain, home to the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s main decision making center. Neither approach works on getting the two brain centers to work together. Both approaches start from the perspective that the two brain centers are operating largely autonomously. As Brodwin’s article points out, cognitive behavioral therapy is often used in combination with antidepressants. What this combination does is the following: strengthens the upper brain so it can control the middle brain while at the same time calming the fear centers of the middle brain. Again, this combination of drugs and therapy does little if anything as far as getting the two brain systems to work together. Maybe some form of cognitive behavioral therapy for both brain centers would make more sense. I’m not aware of such a behavioral methodology. If you know of such a therapeutic approach, please let us know in the comments box below. The only methodology that I know of that might come close is the therapeutic use of “ropes courses”—a physically challenging course of ropes suspended above the ground at various levels.