Myth: Anxiety is caused by a biological problem with the brain
Anxiety and A Biological Problem with the Brain
Up until a few short years ago, another commonly held myth was that anxiety disorder was caused by a biological problem with the brain. This myth came about because some doctors and mental health professionals suggested that MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans showed abnormal brain patterns, which they speculated was an indication that the brain was causing problems with anxiety.
The problem with the theory is that it was based on a misinterpretation of the MRI and fMRI scans and not that the scans actually showed a biological problem.
MRI and fMRI scans can only confirm electrical activity, blood flow, and oxygen utilization in the brain. They can’t, by themselves, determine what is causal and what is effect. Those conclusions require interpretation. While these technologies can see patterns, they DO NOT show why a person thinks the way he does. And thinking in a certain manner will cause the brain to ‘light up’ in certain areas and not in others. So the brain patterns are based on behavior and not that the patterns are in indication of a biological problem.
As Dr. Burns states, “If you’re feeling sad, your brain may show one pattern; if you’re feeling happy or excited, it may show another.”
Yes, MRI and fMRI technologies can be helpful in the diagnostic process for some medical conditions, but they CANNOT determine why anxiety and depressive disorders occur. It’s not within their capability.
Furthermore, similar to the chemical imbalance and genetic predisposition theories, practical evidence disproves that anxiety disorder is caused by a biological problem with the brain. For example, everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. Does that mean everyone has a biological problem with the brain? No, not at all. It just means we can all behave anxiously from time to time, since anxiety is caused by a certain style of behavior. Those who experience anxiety as a disorder – when apprehensive behavior and its consequences interfere with a normal lifestyle – merely behave more apprehensively than others.
Moreover, many people have overcome problematic anxiety through addressing the behavioral issues at the root of anxiety unwellness. Their success was based on behavioral modification and not on an operation to fix a biological problem with the brain.
So, no, anxiety disorder is not caused by a biological problem with the brain. Fortunately, this theory, for the most part, has disappeared over the last number of years.
How can this myth hamper recovery?
Believing anxiety is caused by a biological problem with the brain places the solution outside of our control. If a person believes his faulty brain is the reason for a struggle with anxiety unwellness, then there is nothing he can do about it. This conclusion makes him an anxiety victim rather than being empowered to make healthy change.
As we state in our materials, anxiety is a physiological, psychological, and emotional state that occurs when a person behaves apprehensively. So, anxiety is a result of a certain style of behavior and not caused by a problem with the brain. Dealing with the true cause of anxiety unwellness – unhealthy behavior – solves anxiety unwellness…and for good. When you deal with the cause, you eliminate the problem.
All of us have the ability to overcome anxiety unwellness with the right information, help, effort, and support. No one needs to be a victim of anxiety, especially since anxiety is something we create rather than something we are victims of.
How can this myth make things worse?
Anxiety occurs when we worry that something bad or harmful may happen. If you believe your anxiety is caused by something outside of your control that you can never ‘correct’ or resolve, the implications of that realization could make you feel more anxious, and even depressed.
When people feel they have no hope, this mindset can produce the very outcome they fear and dread, which creates more anxiety and depression.
But if you believe anxiety is a behavior you can work at changing, that realization alone can bring hope, which can alleviate a great deal of unnecessary anxiety and feelings of being depressed.
Anxiety isn’t about something that’s ‘gone wrong’ and that you can’t correct. Anxiety is about behavior that all of us can change and control when we know how. Working with an experienced anxiety therapist, coach, or counsellor can teach you those important skills.
All of us at anxietycentre.com have experienced problematic anxiety and know how out of control it can seem. But we also know that there are many ways we can gain control over it. Getting the right information, help, and support is all that is required to successfully treat anxiety unwellness. No one needs to suffer needlessly!
The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - we call these core causes the underlying factors of anxiety - a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.
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Authors: Jim Folk, Marilyn Folk, BScN. Last updated September 2016.