The Roots of Anxiety
Surveys show that as much as 33.7% of the population are affected by an anxiety disorder at some point during their lifetime. The most common forms of anxiety disorders include:
- Panic disorder: recurring unexpected panic attacks
- Generalized anxiety disorder: feeling tense and guarded consistently
- Social anxiety disorder: feeling still and fearful around other people
Specific phobias also count as a type of anxiety disorder. The most common phobias include:
- Mysophobia: fear of contamination by germs
- Agoraphobia: fear of going outside
- Cynophobia: fear of dogs
A common thread among all of the above forms of anxiety is the source. In most cases, that source happened between the ages of 0-6. In a majority of cases, the source incident happened between the ages of 0-3.
This article breaks down how negative childhood experiences affect the brain and lead to anxiety. In doing so, it also reveals the way out. By finding the source, it's possible to find a free and easy remedy to release the pain, let go and start truly living life.
Early Brain Development Shapes Perception of Reality
The brain processes information across networks of specialized nerve cells called neurons. Neurons pass messages to other neurons via connection hubs called synapses.
Neuron cells are the basic working unit of the brain. Neurons transmit information to nerve, muscle and gland cells. Synapses serve as links to information. The more an action or habit is repeated, the stronger the synaptic connection.
In other words, with each repetition, an becomes more deeply ingrained in the brain until it becomes reality.
For example, a high percentage of children who suffer sexual abuse grow up to become an abuser - it's the reality they know. As another example, a child who who is constantly told they are stupid will eventually accept that as true.
In these ways, people who suffer early childhood trauma may lose touch with their true nature and accept their distorted perceptions as reality. In these cases, life becomes a dull, dreary blur, living as a slave to one's fears.
Synapses shape reality from childhood experiences
As soon as a child is born, synapses kick into high production. By the age of three, the brain has twice as many synapses as it will have in adulthood.
Synapses serve as links to information. The more an action or habit is repeated, the stronger the synaptic connection becomes. The less an action is repeated, the weaker it becomes. Over time, weak synapses get pruned down.
As a result, a teen who grows up in a loving and wealthy home will likely have a very positive picture of reality. Conversely, the teen who grew up in a poor, abusive household will likely see the world as a cold and cruel struggle for survival.
How Trauma Affects a Child’s Brain
Trauma and negative experiences affect the early development of the brain. The structure and function of the hippocampus (responsible for learning and memory), for example, are different when compared to individuals who weren’t traumatized.
Notice in the above image how the brain shows a sustained and pervasive stress response as the child grows. Early childhood trauma makes brain wave patterns change. Neurotransmitter levels adapt to these new abnormal levels, and then everything goes out of alignment in both body and mind.
In cases where childhood abuse was early, pervasive, or severe, the biological changes in the brain are even more profound.
Brain formation from 0-3 years old
The neural network forms the basic wiring of the brain. These 'wires' process sensory input from the environment, while the brain constantly fine-tune itself to adapt to the information received.
As a child’s senses report to the brain, it stimulates neural activity. If the amount of input increases, synapses between neurons in that area will be activated more often.
Repeated use strengthens a synapse, while ones rarely used remain weak and are more likely to get pruned.
Repetition of actions or experiences etch synapses into the brain; once strengthened sufficiently, they become permanent (unless you rewire them).
This means that a child’s experiences not only determine what information enters her brain, but also influence how their brain processes information.
This is how a beaten child grows up to become a frightened adult - afraid of ghosts that only exist inside their heads.
Synapse pruning during adolescence
From ages 10 until late adolescence, the brain begins to prune down synapses. Those which have been neglected or are used infrequently are lost. Strong connections are exempt from this process.
Synapses that survive pruning remain largely stable in adulthood giving each person a unique pattern of mind, thought and emotions. It is this pattern that determines who we are, and will influence how we think and learn as adults.
Distorted reality as an adult
This writer suffered ritual beatings until he was 12 years old. Each time, the entire family would sit down to watch a long interrogation that would end in a whipping. Crying was not allowed, and when it inevitably happened, the whipping would intensify.
On a consistent basis, the synapses that were firing were based on a high-tension environment of fear and public humiliation.
You can see the effect of this synapse development below. The right image shows slouched, defeated shoulders, power center curved inwards and a vacant expression. The left image was where I freaked out my classmates and a photographer by being completely unable to look directly into the camera. Instead I sat there with a frozen smile and could not make eye contact.
As an adult, I was stiff, frozen and faking my way through every encounter with people. Making authentic connections was impossible.
For twenty years, I roamed across Asia, trying everything I could to shake the gloom: meditation, mantras, psychedelics, reading, traditional counselling, Himalayan trekking, new age counselling, yoga, exercise, throwing myself into stressful situations and more. Nothing worked.
I was a robotic faker scraping a living until I'd get shamed out of town and then move on to the next place.
Solution: cut anxiety out at the roots
I finally broke free of my anxiety by identifying the source. It was a single incident that happened when I was three years old. That incident transformed my world into a scary, humiliating place where I deserved to be punished.
Recalling that memory with crystal clarity released a torrent of emotion and left me disoriented.
The next morning, when I opened my eyes from sleep, I saw a completely new world. The heavy weight and perpetual tension was gone. Everything looked brilliant, exciting and inviting. I had regained control of my life.
Post anxiety challenges
Breaking free of chronic anxiety can be reversed in an instant by plunging into the memory of the root incident. If successful, mental shackles fade out of existence.
Then, you find yourself in the captain's chair, with full freedom to navigate life in any direction you want. However, it's not an easy process. These are some of the challenges you will face:
- Setting goals: a captain without a route will just amble aimlessly
- Maintaining humility: post anxiety life will skyrocket your confidence. However, effort should be focused on retaining humility, rather than veering off into ego
- Service to community: it is by giving that we receive
- Service to self: healthy body, clean food, positive thinking
The ultimate goal is to strike a balance between the spiritual and the practice in order to reach a state of ikigai. This is found at the intersection where your passions and skills converge with the things that the world needs.