• How Anxiety Affects The Brain: 3 Things To Know

    Far too often, the term “stressed out” is treated as if it means the same as “anxiety.” There’s a huge difference. Generally speaking, when we’re stressed, we know the reason why. You have a big job interview. A family member isn’t feeling well. What in the world should you wear on that first date? It’s cause and effect. Once the cause has passed, the stress usually follows.

    Anxiety is a diagnosable mental health condition. Its hallmark is how free-floating it is. You feel fearful, nervous, and worried without having an apparent reason. Stress is temporary. Anxiety changes your brain.

    The First Way Anxiety Affects The Brain

    Anxiety warns us of dangers that may not even exist. It tricks your brain into fight-or-flight mode. A major part of this response is the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. They provoke survival reactions like increased heart rate, respiration, etc.

    If your brain is chronically anxious, the hormones overwhelm your brain’s ability to discern fact from fiction. You get stuck in a state of high alert. To follow is a more technical explanation.

    3 More Things To Know

    1. The Amygdala and Hippocampus

    Your amygdala plays a big role in helping you express emotions. One of its primary duties is to respond to any stimuli that are threatening. Ongoing anxiety — and the stress hormones that come with it — causes the tiny amygdala to grow. The end result of such growth is an exaggerated reaction to anything that even hints at risk or danger.

    The same process that leads the amygdala to increase in size can shrink your hippocampus. The hippocampus is your brain’s learning and memory center. It works together with the amygdala in an important way. They control the act of recalling emotional memories. They also regulate how you react to such memories.

    A downsized hippocampus, therefore, has difficulty juggling old memories and creating new memories. So, you may react extremely to memories and make fragmented memory connections with new events. Something fearful could be incorrectly linked to, say, a person or place. This serves to create more anxiety.

    image of brain surrounded by lightbulbs2. The Amygdala and Prefrontal Cortex

    The amygdala also works in conjunction with your prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is your command center. It makes plans, processes input, and solves problems by making logical decisions. It’s probably not hard to imagine what happens when a shrunken amygdala supplies the PFC with fault data. You not only see threats where they do not exist but you also cannot respond to any danger (real or imagined) in a useful, informed manner.

    3. The Hippocampus Alone

    Anxiety impacts your amygdala which, in turn, impacts your hippocampus — as described above. This impact carries over with the hippocampus in another way. The anxious brain opts to cling to memories that relate to stressful events. The good memories get pushed to the back burner. Such a memory-based imbalance skews your perception. You see negativity everywhere in your past, present, and future. This has been shown to increase the likelihood of disorders like depression and dementia.

    So, What’s the Good News?

    Your brain is plastic. The damage caused by anxiety is not necessarily permanent. In fact, much of it can be reversed if you get treatment for the anxiety. What we know is that addressing current anxiety and managing future anxiety has multiple benefits. You can repair the brain and increase your quality of life.

    Anxiety is the most common mental health condition on the planet. You’re not alone; fortunately, there are countless safe treatment options without medication. I’ve helped many, many clients recover from chronic anxiety and live rich lives. I’d love to help you, too. Reach out to me to learn more about anxiety therapy and how it can be beneficial.