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A Background to the brain and how anxiety can affect brain functioning


The brain begins development in utero where cells begin to organise themselves into networks and this development continues right through to early adulthood with the cells continuing to organise themselves into more complex specialised networks.  It all begins at the base of the brain with the formation of the brainstem, the development continues upwards to the midbrain, followed by the limbic area and finally to the cortex. 


The brain functions in a bottom to top hierarchical manner, with the brainstem maintaining all the core regulatory functions such as body temperature, heart rate, respiration and blood pressure.  The midbrain/cerebellum and the limbic systems are responsible for the motor-vestibular functions and emotional responses that guide our behaviours like fear, love, hatred or joy.  The outer and top layer of the brain is the cortex responsible for speech, language, planning, creative thinking and decision making, just to name a few.


When someone is in a state of anxiety they are operating at the level of the brainstem where the autonomous core functions take place.  It is at this level that the survival mechanisms of ‘fight or flight’ kick in.  Generally their breathing may become shallower, their heart rate increases and they may have trouble maintaining their body temperature and focus.  If the brainstem has developed optimally as the person has evolved, the experience of anxiety will be short lived as they begin to recognise they are anxious and direct themselves to breathe deeper and draw on other calming processes that allow the ‘flight/fight’ response to disengage.  If however they are unable to relieve themselves of the anxiety, it could point to an underlying problem in the development of the brainstem.


This complex neural circuitry begins development in utero and continues until about the age of three.  During this time the young infant develops ‘stamina’ for this ‘fight or flight’ response.  From the time the infant is born the baby learns that his needs are met by the primary carer, usually one of the parents.  During this early phase the child’s anxious cries (usually because it is hungry or cold) are met by the parent tending to the child in a calm way and thus allowing the child to feel calm.  As the child grows and the scenario is repeated, the child begins to develop a neural pathway that can predict that the parent will tend to his/her needs and so anxiety begins to lessen.  Over time this pathway is developed further moving upwards to the second level of the brain, this area is linked with emotion and movement.  It is at this stage that a baby begins to smile and follow their mother as he/she moves about them. This is a good sign that a healthy relationship is forming.   From here a firm foundation has been built, this is important because in order to have the higher areas of the brain functioning properly the lower areas need to be functioning at their best.  From here the limbic system begins to take shape with the baby gaining the realisation that he/she can move his/her head or bring his/her hands in to his/her mouth.  Once these systems are operating together the cortex begins to come online with the development of communication - usually through babble or reaching out to mum when they want to be picked up.


The brain also develops in a use dependent fashion.  Neural systems that are used more often become more dominant.  Therefore, if a mother pre-empted every time a child needed feeding and did not allow the  ‘fight or flight’ response system to develop stamina, the developing child would not have had the opportunities to use this neural circuitry as often and therefore may not have the necessary skills to calm themselves.  (Please note it is important to develop stamina not heighten stress so that it is difficult to calm the child – timing is critical in this phase – not too long but time enough for stamina to develop)) This may have a flow on effect as the brainstem is in a state of anxiety or overwhelm.  In this state the child is unable to function above the level of the brainstem – they are in survival mode,  heart rate has increased, they are hypervigilant, they may be super sensitive to noise or movement – the body is readying itself for the ‘fight/fight’ response ranging from giving up or surrendering to crying or moving into fighting mode.  Trying to reason or communicate with them above a basic level is beyond them at this moment.  The only way to move forward in this situation is to lower their stress level by calming them and reassuring them.  This allows them to breathe more deeply, their heart rate begins to lower and the higher levels of the brain begin to come online once again.  Repeating this patterning with the child allows them to develop neural links so that over time the child is able to ‘self-calm’.


Sometimes genetic patterning or environmental factors may get in the way of normal brain development.  It is at these times that some extra support may be needed.


Neuralinks offers extra support through counselling connecting what is happening in the body and linking it to the thought behind the body reaction and changing the thought process.


Neuralinks also offers INPP (Institute for Neuro-physiological Psychology) assessments and support to help the brain change the neural circuitry that is immature or malfunctioning and develop the networks necessary for mature brain functioning.  This is done using a ‘reflex movement program’ that works in the lower part of the brain to make sure the foundations are working optimally.  Firstly after an initial consultation to gain background information the client is assessed.  This assessment is thorough and may take up to 2 hours.  An INPP report is then written and given with recommendations if further development is required.


The INPP program offers a gentle approach as the brain learns through repetition of pattern and movement.

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