Making memories is what makes life worth living. But what happens when you make memories during a traumatic event? Why do some people deal with these memories in a healthy fashion, while others develop PTSD or other anxiety disorders?
Creating memories around traumatic events once was a survival mechanism. And, for many animals, this is still true. After being burned once, your brain will create a memory of the adverse stimuli so that the next time you encounter a stove you don’t get burned again. This is a protection mechanism.
In the brain, these memories are forming through a signaling cascade called the ERK/MAPK pathway along with a glucocorticoid receptor. When these two pathways work together, genes are expressed that create memory. In people who have unhealthy high levels of anxiety, these genes are over-expressed and have epigenetic markings that those without anxiety do not exhibit.
How do we know who will be more likely to have high levels of this gene expression, and thus high levels of anxiety? The simple answer is that we don’t. It is very likely that genetics and environment are the two biggest predictors of an individual’s resilience to stress. But, since we can’t currently test for faulty genetics or environment, our current approach to anxiety is one of treatment rather than a cure.
Forms of treatment vary from a pharmacological approach (drug use) to therapy to brain stimulation. Whether pharmacological in effect or not, all forms of treatment act by changing the way the brain handles and stores memories involved in anxiety or stress inducing events.
The first drug often prescribed for anxiety is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). Use of SSRIs results in higher levels of serotonin, the mood regulating chemical, in the brain. This is a proactive form of treating anxiety. By increasing the positive mood chemicals in the brain, the memories they form in a stressful situation are less likely to be as anxiety causing. When they encounter the same stressful situation again in the future, they are less likely to have an intense amount of anxiety if the initial emotions were positive.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of therapy which has been shown to be as effective in treating anxiety as pharmacological approaches. During this therapy, a therapist asks the participant to conjure up a memory of an anxious or traumatic situation. The therapist then works with the patient to develop coping mechanisms to deal with the stressor, essentially rewiring how the brain deals with memories of stressful situations.
Brain stimulation is used as a last resort for treatment of anxiety. The emotional centers of the brain, found in the limbic system, are targeted by magnetic pulses. These magnetic pulses are thought to disrupt the unhealthy neuron functioning and instead help the neurons send signals in healthy ways.
If you or someone that you know are dealing with anxiety, it is important to realize that this is a disease of brain functioning. There are ways to deal with anxiety, but they involve working on and changing how the brain forms memories. If you think you may be at risk for anxiety, talk to a doctor or other healthcare professional so that your memories don’t turn into a more debilitating condition.
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