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  • Writer's pictureChristina Cunningham Spinler

Neuropsychology of anxiety

Updated: Nov 19, 2023

The Default Mode Network, or DMN, is a crucial neural network in the brain that plays a significant role in various cognitive processes, including self-referential and introspective thinking,

daydreaming, and mind-wandering. It is often most active when an individual's mind is at rest, not actively engaged in tasks that require external focus, such as reading, problem-solving, or decision-making. Mind at rest.

At its core, the DMN serves as an intrinsic source of self-awareness and is especially associated with the ability to access memories and recall the past. It allows us to recollect our experiences, draw connections, and reflect on our lives. It is a source of comfort and solace when we find ourselves in situations of uncertainty, providing a platform from which to make sense of the world.

Interestingly, the DMN can also be activated through external stimuli, such as music, movies, or conversations, which can prompt us to access our own thoughts, memories, emotions, and ideas. This suggests that the DMN can be a powerful tool for personal growth and exploration. It is for this reason that many people utilize it through meditation, art, and even technology, using it to gain insight into their innermost selves.

The brain network underlying the Default Mode Network (DMN) is composed of several interconnected regions, including the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, precuneus, and a number of regions in the parietal cortex. These regions are thought to create a self-referential loop that allows us to access our own thoughts and memories as well as to contemplate our future and gain insight into the mental states of others.

Neuroimaging studies have shown that the DMN is active when individuals are engaged in introspective tasks such as memory recall or self-reflection. During these tasks, activity increases in these brain regions and corresponding connections among them become stronger. This suggests that these regions are integral components of our capacity for introspection and self-reflection.

The Default Mode Network (DMN) is a crucial brain network associated with various cognitive and introspective processes. While the DMN serves essential functions in human cognition and self-awareness, it can also have a significant impact on anxiety. In particular, research has found that activity within the DMN can be linked with higher levels of worry, rumination, and intrusive thoughts. This suggests that greater activation of this network may lead to an increase in anxious symptoms.

To better understand this connection, researchers have begun looking at patterns of brain activity within the DMN when participants are exposed to anxiety-provoking stimuli or experience anxiety-related symptoms. Studies have found that increased connectivity among certain areas of the DMN is associated with greater levels of anxiousness. Specifically, when people are feeling anxious their brains show increased communication between regions such as the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, precuneus, and left hippocampus.

Furthermore, researchers believe that persistent activation of the DMN may lead to a “vicious cycle” where anxious thinking parts reinforces itself through continual rumination and worrying. It is possible that these patterns of activity could have stressful effects on emotional well-being overtime if left unchecked or unaddressed.

How Default Mode impacts anxiety

Given this potential for the effects on mental health, interventions focused on reducing overactivity within the DMN might be beneficial for those struggling with anxiety disorders or related issues.

  • The DMN is closely associated with rumination, which is the repetitive dwelling. When the DMN becomes overactive, individuals may find themselves stuck in cycles of rumination, continually revisiting past experiences or worrying about future events.

  • The DMN has a habit of promoting excessive self-referential thinking, which can lead to feelings of anxiety and self-worth issues. When individuals become too focused on themselves and their perceived shortcomings, it can exacerbate negative thoughts such as self-criticism and self-doubt.

  • The worrisome wonderment is in the default mode network's capacity for predicting the future can lead to an onset of anticipatory anxiety. As people reflect on what might happen or possible dangers, their imagination can create a stream of daunting thoughts and catastrophic prospects, resulting in heightened anxious feelings.

  • Mindfulness and being aware of the present can help reduce stress levels. But an overactive Default Mode Network can make it hard to implement these ideas. If the DMN is too active, then it's difficult to stay focused on the present and not drift into anxious or self-focused thoughts.

  • A hyperactive DMN, primarily overnight, may be the cause of poor sleeping habits and insomnia. People may have difficulty calming down their minds for proper restful slumber, thus boosting anxiety due to lack of sleep.

Mindfulness self compassion meditation practices and using IFS.

Self compassion mindfulness-based interventions can be effective in reducing anxiety symptoms by allowing individuals to practice awareness of their thoughts and feelings without judgement or self-criticism. This promotes a more neutral way of viewing experiences which can help break the cycle of rumination that often accompanies anxious thinking. Similarly, Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy seeks to create harmony between different parts of the self by recognizing their individual needs and fostering healthy communication between them.

By breaking apart overwhelming emotions into smaller parts, IFS helps people find acceptance and peace within themselves rather than battling against it.

Somatic Ideas to bring self energy to the default mode parts:

A range of activities such as mindfulness meditation, journaling, breathing exercises, or guided visualizations. Through regular practice, the individual can become more aware of their internal dialogue and learn to recognize when their "manager parts" are activated within the Default mode network. This awareness can create space for them to engage in self-compassion and make healthier choices for themselves.

Overactive protectors can inadvertently activate the DMN, leading to excessive rumination and anxiety. IFS emphasizes self-leadership, where your true self takes on a nurturing role. By connecting with your self, you can help calm overactive protectors and comfort exiles, reducing DMN-driven anxiety. Understanding

Additional Somatic ideas to help our parts that are overwhelmed

One can also use somatic mind-body tools to help reduce the activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN) during anxious moments, consider these techniques to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS):

Start by taking slow, deep breaths in order to stimulate the Parasympathetic Nervous System and create a feeling of relaxation. Try diaphragmatic breathing - inhale deeply through the nose until your abdomen rises, then exhale slowly out of your mouth.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation is another effective method. This involves systematically tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups, activating the PNS and reducing anxiety-related muscle tension.

Mindfulness Meditation can activate the PNS as well. Focus on your breath or bodily sensations, grounding your attention in the present moment. I have other posts related to mindfulness, I'm happy to provide more information.

Mindful movement is another powerful technique to help activate the PNS and reduce the activity of the DMN. This could involve yoga, walking, tai chi or qigong. As you move, focus on how your body feels as it moves, gently and slowly. Notice any sensations without judgement, and try to remain present with your breath and body as you move. These practices promote relaxation and stimulate PNS activation.

Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is a key player in the parasympathetic nervous system (help the mind and body go into relaxation stage), and its stimulation can have positive effects. It runs from the brain stem to various parts of the body including the heart, lungs, and digestive system. The vagus nerve helps to control heart rate, digestion, and breathing, as well as emotions. Stimulating it can reduce anxious parts too by calming your entire body (in conjunction with understanding the part that is anxious and pull in self energy). Activities such as singing, gargling with cold water splashed on the face as a few ideas.

Singing can help activate your voice box which helps to relax your throat muscles and calm your breathing. Gargling with cold water or drinking something cold stimulates those same muscles by sending a signal to them through your nerves. By increasing our knowledge about our own bodies and understanding more deeply how different activities or stimuli affect us physiologically, we can empower ourselves with more tools for managing our mental health.


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