Neural Pathways and Anxiety

Apr 12, 2020

Neural pathways are pathways that can be seen in real time, in the brain. The way our neural pathways grow has a lot to do with the way we function in and experience the world.  We can change our neural pathways, grow new pathways and eliminate pathways.

Consider the following analogy of  a neural pathway.

A bicycle wheel  (a thought) crosses a park (a brain) leaving a tiny trace in the grass. A tiny pathway is formed, but in the breeze and sunlight, soon it can no longer be seen. The next day the bike follows exactly the same route and again the wheels leave a trace in the grass. Before long more bikes are following across the grass, on the same route,  and the grass is beginning to turn to dirt. As the pathway turns to dirt some motorbikes start to use the and path and it gets wider and the traffic increases further. Can you see where this is going ? This process of the trace in the grass turning to a road is similar to the formation of a neural pathway in the brain. Neurons that fire together, frequently or intensely, grow into neural pathways.

One day the bike arrives at the part and he rider sees a new shortcut when a fence is removed, more bikes follow on the new route. Soon grass begins to grow over the old pathway while the bikes find a new pathway to cut through the park which is even better. The old pathway is forgotten.

What has all of this got to do with anxiety you may ask ?

Every time we give attention to a worrying thought we are putting more traffic on a particular neural pathway in our brain. The pathway becomes bigger and other pathways begin to shrink. Worry can develop into fear and fear into panic. As the brain begins to seek relevant information to mitigate fears it become hyper-vigilant of all fearful things in the environment, strengthening the "worry" pathway into a "panic" highway.

What is the way out of this ?

We cant grow grass over a busy pathway, but we can, at any time, open up new pathways with new thoughts and behaviours. As new pathways form, old pathways fade, shrink and can disappear. Similarly with addictions, in deciding to work on new habits, acting on the decision, new neural pathways form, new habits  lock in, old habits fade.

Sometimes the pathway across the grass in the park didn't start with a bike passing, it started with a bulldozer. Something traumatic has happened and a faint neural pathways suddenly had massive traffic volume. This neural pathway has formed instantly, growing quickly, with massive traffic volume, to an "anxiety highway". But, even the "bulldozer trail" can grow over given time, if it is not maintained with a huge volume of scary thoughts.

If you are experiencing anxiety into your life, without a doubt, you will have certain well used neural pathways that maintain the anxiety. No matter how challenging the anxiety is there is a way through it. The most effective way to shrink the 6 lane "anxiety" highway is to create new neural pathways, with

  • New purposeful habits
  • Social connections  
  • Story telling, telling your story in empowering ways. Discovering new meaningfulness
  • Learning how to still your mind ( to stop the traffic when you want).

Also,  see my posts on

Martin Fraser, B.A. (Hons) Psyc. Dip Counselling.

Particular interest in enhancing resilience in my community against Depression, Anxiety, Isolation and Addictions. Member of NZ Assoc Counsellors.

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