By Anuroop Alberts
Every human being has experienced anxiety at least once in their life (and likely hundreds of times since birth).
From the brief seconds right before your very first day at school, to the point in time when you ask that special someone on a date, those accompanying emotions of fear, nervousness and worry are nothing new.
As much as many of us may not like those feelings, they are very important to our decision-making process. Over the course of millions of years, anxiety has developed and evolved in numerous species as a survival mechanism against danger.
That danger for us has long since changed from the times of our ancestors running away from predators, and our responses have changed too (hopefully no one has ever had to react to our partner trying to eat us), but the biological processes that lead to that response are still around and quite active.
Humans receive information from their environment. This happens though our senses of touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing.
The processes at the biological level are extremely complex, but the essential idea is that many cells, systems and organs work together for the transfer of information from outside our bodies to inside our brains, and then our brains send signals through our bodies and into our muscles in order to respond to the initial outside information.
For example, if you were walking through a park, and saw Jason Voorhees in the middle of your path with a large machete, information (your sight of an unstoppable killer) would be taken in starting from your sensory organs (eyes) and then be sent in the form of action potentials through your afferent neurons which would then transfer that information into your central nervous system (CNS) where it travels ultimately to your brain.
When in the brain, information may be passed through a multitude of areas. For example, the thalamus acts as a section that screens information prior to it entering and being sent to other areas of the brain, like security at an airport that checks you and your bags before letting you go on a flight to Vegas.
When it comes to anxiety, information from our environment is processed through an almond shaped section of our brain known as the amygdala. The amygdala can then send signals through inner connections to your hypothalamus, which directly influences many different reactions for us to maintain homeostasis, including behavioral patterns.
So now the brain has an appropriate amount of information to make an appropriate response for survival.
Much of the processes associated with the response from the hypothalamus and amygdala are still being researched.
After the hypothalamus has received the appropriate signaling, it will then send signals out from the brain and into other parts of the body using a combination of neural pathways and the blood stream.
Some of these signaling mechanisms will lead to the release of many stress related hormones including epinephrine and norepinephrine, also known as adrenaline and noradrenaline respectively.
These hormones eventually reach specific cells, which then triggers physical responses including an increase in heart rate, increase in blood flow to skeletal muscle cells responsible for movement, an increase in respiration rate for greater oxygen uptake and pupil dilation for greater intake of light.
From here, you could decide to stand your ground against a cold blooded killer, or run as fast as possible hoping he doesn’t throw any sharp objects in your direction. Either way, your feelings of terror would be justified and it would probably be a very bad day.
Naturally, the human body, as well as the biological processes associated with anxiety, entails many more connections than the ones described, and areas of the brain such as the hypothalamus and amygdala have many more connections with other parts of the brain than just themselves.
Furthermore, the brain itself contains about 100 million neurons with about 1 quadrillion connections (that’s 15 zeros) .
But even with that, the process just described takes only a few seconds to reach an ideal physical response. With a system like that, you can only wonder how much that process developed over millions of years of evolutionary changes.
At the end of it all, we are very fortunate to be alive, though I'd appreciate it more if I didn't stress about my test on Thursday.
Saffron, like that which we sell here at Zaffrus, has been scientifically shown to have potentially positive effects on the brain.
The antidepressant effects of saffron are one of the most famous. They are also what we tend to have the most science around.
A series of Iranian studies, for example (there’s many more) in the Journal of Medicinal Plants looked at the relationship between antidepressant influences and saffron.
In one of their more recent studies they found that saffron can lead to an increase in dopamine and norepinephrine. These are hormones that hit our pleasure centers and make us feel good.
Human Physiology: From Cells to Systems by Lauralee Sherwood, 9th Edition