This Is How Anxiety Affects Your Brain

by Apr 10, 202389 comments

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health struggles across the globe. We often tend to think of it as an intangible thing, however, anxiety has concrete physical effects.

On top of physical symptoms like a racing heart, chest tightness, muscle tension, headaches, and an upset stomach, anxiety affects the structural and chemical makeup of our brain. Let’s look at some of the key ways anxiety affects the brain.

How Anxiety Affects the Brain

The Brain Stem

The brain stem is where our basic sense of survival lives. It’s responsible for making sure we stay alive and partake in basic functions like eating and breathing. Everything gets relayed through the brain stem. When anxiety kicks in, your brain stem simply reacts. It senses “danger” and takes action. It shuts down some of your higher-level cognition and funnels your energy into survival mode. When a threat is perceived, your brain stem turns off your higher thinking. That’s why you may feel “out of it” when you’re anxious. It makes it difficult to focus on things like work.

This is also what leads to irrational or impulsive behavior. Your system that’s responsible for coming up with a rational plan short circuits with anxiety. Your brain doesn’t have time to think, only to act.

The Limbic System

In general, those with anxiety disorders tend to have more active limbic systems. This system takes care of much of our emotional processing and is home to key players like the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the hypothalamus.

Hormones

When the amygdala stimulates the hypothalamus, our fight-or-flight response is activated. The hypothalamus then alerts the adrenal glands, which begin producing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

These processes are designed to keep us safe from danger, but with anxiety, they’re over-activated. This establishes a trend in how your brain perceives threats and risks. Since the limbic system is reactionary and the amygdala determines what’s safe and what’s not, your brain is unable to out-logic anxiety. Danger is danger, whether it’s real or perceived.

Hypervigilance

As anxiety stirs up a reaction, you’re put into a state of hypervigilance. This means you’re always on guard and on the lookout for threats. As you might imagine, this isn’t a state you’re meant to be in for any extended time. It becomes exhausting. However, anxiety has trained your brain to believe that this is a necessity, even when you’re in a perfectly safe environment or situation.

With anxiety, the amygdala enlarges, making it more sensitive. Therefore, you’re more prone to “false alarms” which only fuel anxiety.

Memory Problems

While anxiety causes the amygdala to increase in size, it causes the hippocampus to shrink. The hippocampus plays a big role in memory. When it shrinks, it can lead to confusion, and the hippocampus becomes trained to emphasize negative memories, further heightening feelings of anxiety.

The Good News

Fortunately, these brain changes caused by anxiety are largely reversible. The brain is incredible and has the ability to bounce back.

With therapy, medication, or a combination of the two, many people are able to gain a sense of control over their mental well-being. Other methods such as journaling, exercise, and good sleep hygiene can help support your mental state and the hard work you put into overcoming anxiety.

As you work to restore balance in key parts of your brain, you’ll start to feel better. Those headaches will ease, you’ll sleep better, and you’ll be able to reap the rewards of allowing your body to rest.

If you’re struggling with anxiety, don’t hesitate to reach out today. Together we can identify a path forward so you can develop a more positive outlook through anxiety therapy.

Click here for more information on anxiety therapy.