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Mindful Neuroscience: Why Are Humans So Anxious?

Updated: Jul 1, 2021

Editor's Note: This article was authored by Stefanie Faye, for the Institute for Organizational Mindfulness (IOM). Thanks, Stefanie!

The Root of Anxiety

Where does anxiety come from?

Why is it a part of the human experience?

In a quantitative EEG, we can see anxious-type of thinking reflected in high-frequency brainwaves (the 'hibeta' frequency band of around 20-30 Hz per cycle*)

It's a type of brain activity that can be useful for emergency and high-stress situations.

But when we can't shift gears to get out of it, it feels overwhelming. It can lead a person to overreact with urgency to something that isn't.

And so they do whatever they can to either 'get out of their mind' by either focusing on something else.

Anxiety-Induced Reactions

  • 'hyper-aroused aggression: trying to find someone to be 'against', stirring the pot

  • 'hypo-aroused activity' like staying constantly busy, not allowing yourself to be still

  • 'hyperarousal, like collapsing, zoning out, dissociating, become disinterested

  • 'hyper-social: looking to get reactions from others or crying out for help from others in ways that seem disproportionate or irrational.

Another common way to deal with this high-frequency, overwhelming brain activity is to slow it down using substances. People may also look for a medication that helps them do this.

These are all things that can provide temporary 'relief' from the high-speed activity of anxious thoughts.

The problem is, they don't actually get to the root of the problem. So as soon as the activity or substance has worn off...there you are with the high-frequency brain activity again.

Moreover, you've 'shifted the burden' to something else, so your brain hasn't used its own circuitry to navigate through it.

The other issue is that these techniques are treating the brain like it's some isolated system.

For example, I've had parents say to me "can you fix my kid's brain? They overreact all the time and they have no reason for being that way."

When we focus on trying to 'fix' dysregulation without acknowledging how it emerged, we are conveying a message that somehow the anxiety or overreaction just 'appeared' because of an imbalance in their brain and that distress, dysregulation and anxiety are isolated problems about that individual.

I think this is a really big problem.

Treating the brain in isolation like that is also scientifically inaccurate.

The ability to self-regulate comes from social feedback systems that help us build our self-regulating circuitry.

Disruptions to the system can happen in our earliest years, as well as during traumatic, tragic and violent events that occur later in life.

For example, if a person has been exposed to war, tragedy, natural disaster (incident-based trauma) or abuse, neglect, or severe family dysregulation (complex trauma), there is a very strong chance that their mind-brain-body holds these traumatic stress responses in unconscious ways.

Incident-based and complex trauma creates nervous system response patterns that can damage self-regulating abilities and lead to behaviors that are disruptive and harmful for relationships.

It can lead a person to never feel like they can let their guard down.

So it becomes a perpetual cycle: the very thing they need is a secure relationship, but their past experiences make it hard for them to achieve this.

When circumstances and events activate our nervous system in ways that exceed its ability to self-soothe and regulate, these events can be stored in our brain-body circuitry as 'cellular memories' that are:

  • Visceral - something you feel within your organs and the deeper layers of your skin

  • Non-verbal - nothing that you can really make sense of in terms of words or explanations or categories of labels.

  • Procedural - Almost like muscle memories that are more like a 'mechanical automation' - your body moves in that way without you having much awareness of it.

Our brains depend on relationships to build self-regulating circuitry.

The good news is that this is also why we can interrupt the cycle.

When something isn't genetically programmed to just 'happen' without certain conditions, it means that it is experience-dependent.

If we give our brain-body system new experiences, it can build new circuitry.

The first steps to find our way out of this are to:

  1. Become better 'noticers' of our patterns

  2. Understand where our patterns come from

Dysregulation and anxiety have roots. They don't just 'appear' in someone's brain.

The more you can see these roots now - as an adult - the better you can get at noticing when something in your current experience is triggering something from your past.

This can help you start to notice that a reaction you're having may not be in alignment with what is actually occurring.

Applying Awareness in Real-Time

I am learning this as I teach it and I continuously emerge with new things to teach because of how much I explore my own patterns. Especially the ones that break my heart when I lose a chance to connect because I've let my past take over the present.

There's no drug, medication, or single modality that does this internal work. It's not to say they can't be used for temporary relief. But the power to become aware, and connect dots, and then choose a new movement, through trial and error. And to have compassion for ourselves as we do this - that's the work.

It's not a quick fix. But it's the mechanism by which we actually alter our neural architecture and break the cycle of transmitting it to future generations.


Sometimes our most secure relationships come from the process of 'rupture and repair'.

Over time, if two people can express their distress to one another openly and without judgment, and then find ways to repair this in compassionate and loving ways, it can create a bond that allows each person to know more securely that they will be able to withstand the challenges of a long life together.

Where do you see this as true in your life? Who have you experienced this kind of secure-base-building rupture and repair? Do you have an opportunity to create this now?

* there are variations in what can be labeled as hibeta, but this is a range I use in my current work.


Stefanie Faye is a neuroscience researcher and clinician. She has been consulting in countries across the globe and works to bridge the gap between complex research and practicable application. Through group training, development seminars, and lectures Stefanie helps individuals find new ways of using their talents, discomforts, failures, and challenges as pathways to growth and evolution.

Institute for Organizational Mindfulness (IOM) is a membership association of researchers, educators, and executives, with a shared mission to bring science-based neural training into the mainstream of business, healthcare, education, and government. We're working to create a global community of shared experience, conduct research, define standards and practices, develop educational programs, and determine the measures, metrics, and analytics for organizational mindfulness.


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