Photo: Getty Images
A history of mental illness can often be traced to childhood. In my case, it began with feelings of fear and rejection when I learned that my mother gave me away at birth. This was the first in a series of unhappy childhood experiences that contributed to my chronic anxiety.
Such early traumas are not uncommon, and most of us have had experiences we would rather forget. But when these traumas happen repeatedly they can set the stage for chronic anxiety later in life.
Statistics from the National Institutes of Mental Health show that as many as 40 million adult Americans suffer from some form of anxiety disorder. An area of the brain called the amygdala (Latin for “almond,” and named for its shape) is pivotal in causing the symptoms. Treatments that affect this area of the brain are designed to treat the root cause of anxiety.
According to Dominique Richard, a New York phytopharmacologist, “The amygdala seems to respond to severe traumas with an un-erasable fear response. It seems to be genetically different and wired for a higher level of fear in some individuals, such as those with panic disorder. And they recently have been shown to be reduced in size in some people with bipolar disorder.”
The amygdala works like an emotional gauge. Normally, when a person perceives a threat, the amygdala relays information to the cerebral cortex, which assesses the threat and decides how to handle it. The brain then resets for normal. Individuals like me, who have undergone prolonged periods of stress or distress, develop a highly sensitive amygdala, meaning the cortex plays a minimal role in determining when to shut off the fear response. Consequently, we suffer from an anxiety disorder and experience pervasive fear regardless of external realities.
Most anxiety cures affect the amygdala indirectly through sedation or directly through reprogramming. Traditional treatments lean towards medications such as benzodiazepines, antidepressants, and beta-blockers. These medications sedate the amygdala and alter the levels of the brain’s chemical neurotransmitters. The result is a calming, relaxing effect.