An anxiety disorder is a complex problem that does not have a single identifiable cause, although psychology has found a single identifiable common thread: thought.1 When I read Bernie Siegel, MD’s book Love, Medicine and Miracles and he wrote that “thoughts are chemical” and “they will either heal us or kill us”2, I literally changed my personal recovery path. This simple yet profound truth became the central theme of my professional approach to healing anxiety symptoms and disorders.
So if the problem is “thought,” then why is it that some individuals' thought patterns cause them to suffer more than others from anxiety symptoms in similar circumstances? It stands to reason that these factors listed below3 play a significant role in creating the individual’s thought experiences as the catalyst to the manifestation of anxiety symptoms and/or disorders:
Environment. The environment in which someone is raised and lives is thought to have a significant impact on coping skills. Most behavior is learned to a certain extent by what children see as models, so violent or self-destructive responses to stress may well be learned from watching parents, siblings and others in the immediate environment. This is also where the firsthand experiences and victimization of trauma begin to form early survival-driven behaviors.
Genetics. While genetics does play a role in the tendency to develop anxiety disorders, just how powerful this role is remains unclear. What may be true is that while many people are genetically predisposed to develop anxiety issues, the overriding element to whether one actually develops the disorder is how well one manages stress in life.
Personality. Personality is determined in part by genetics and in part by environmental factors. Learned coping skills and the witnessing or personal victimization of trauma are among the critical factors in the early development of personality. If one has a tendency toward negative thoughts, catastrophic thinking, or the “type A” personality label, that person is more likely to experience uncomfortable anxiety symptoms and possibly develop an anxiety disorder.
Brain chemistry. Biochemical construct inheritance plays a significant role in the organization of an individual’s brain chemistry and the prediction of anxiety disorders.4 The chemistry of the brain can be altered by drugs, hormones and alcohol use. Changing brain chemistry with the prolonged use and/or abuse of substances such as alcohol and amphetamines may lead to the development of an anxiety disorder. Likewise, during the detoxification stage of these and other substances, the individual may experience anxiety symptoms but may or may not indicate a sustaining disorder.
Chemical use. The use of drugs and alcohol5 as a means to self-medicate the mental “dis-ease” of anxiety has a direct impact on the progressive nature of all types of anxiety disorders.
Most mental health professionals have come across the items on this list as being the core contributors to essentially all mental health issues. What we have done less, however, is view this list as a pathway to dive deeper to the ideas, emotional constructs and belief systems adopted as a result of environmental experiences, genetic inheritances and the like. These thoughts may have created a primal need to self-medicate6 the resulting experience of the mental disease of anxiety symptoms.
To offer our clients the best chance of success in the therapeutic experience, finding the specific nature of the adopted thought parts created for early survival is essential to then identifying the shiny new thought part to replace the rusty, malfunctioning, anxiety-inducing part that once worked for them. Remember that when someone is suffering from an anxiety disorder, it is not so much about the factors but about the person's perception and responses both emotionally and biophysically to the factors. Perception is thought, and thoughts are chemical.
It is important to tailor treatment to an individual's needs rather than using a pre-designed template for dealing with anxiety. With personalized treatment involving a modality called Neurogenesis Meditative Therapy (NMT)7, the thought-driven emotional and behavioral factors that contribute to an anxiety disorder can be changed. Wayne Dyer said, “Change the way we look at things and the things we look at change.” Thoughts are indeed a big deal.
It is true that “when we change our thoughts we change our brain,” as Daniel Amen, MD, states. But the daunting truth is that thoughts are so hard to change. Changing thought first requires challenging the thought, which is a primary element of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).1 This involves asking the thought if it’s true, fresh and helpful, or if it's worn out, destructive and self-defeating. Only when your clients are able to see for themselves that an old thought is ready for the can are they really ready for a transformation.
The most effective way we have discovered to a deep, lasting transformation in thought constructs is through a meditative experience such as NMT. Thought habits and patterns are incredibly resistant to change. NMT allows the mind to relax protective filters and barriers to information in our environment that we have created over a lifetime, so we can better receive, accept and embed new thought constructs and involuntary behavioral responses to stress. At its core, meditation8 is simply focused attention without interruption.