Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental illness in the United States. If you’re one of the 40 million adults living with an anxiety-based condition, you’re probably familiar with the ways anxiety can influence your physical health. You may not realize, though, how much anxiety affects your brain health. Anxiety can hyper-activate areas in your brain that detect and respond to threats. At the same time, anxiety might hinder activity in parts of your brain that manage your reaction to fear and stress. Luckily, mental health treatment along with mindfulness and meditation can help manage anxiety disorders.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety isn’t stress; it’s your mind and body’s reaction to stressful, dangerous, or unfamiliar situations. Anxiety usually manifests itself as an intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear. A certain level of anxiety is normal. For example, you might feel uneasy, distressed, or even a feeling of dread a few moments before a significant event. Anxiety disorders are different. When you’re living with an anxiety-based condition, the amount of worry and fear you feel might be completely debilitating. This is especially true when there’s no trigger for your anxiety. When this happens, anxious brains function in a constant state of worry and fear. Not knowing what to do, your brain releases an influx of stress hormones.
4 Major Effects of Anxiety On The Brain
#1. Anxiety Floods Your Brain with Stress Hormones
- When you feel anxious, your body goes on alert, prompting your brain to prepare itself for flight or fight mode. In an attempt to help you fight off whatever has made you anxious, your brain floods your central nervous system with adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones tell your body that something scary is about to happen. Their role is to help you cope with danger. In order to do that, they sharpen your senses and make your reflexes faster. In a non-anxious brain, when the danger is gone, the sympathetic part of your nervous system takes over and calms you down. But when you suffer from anxiety, you may not be able to reach that sense of calm. Instead, the rush of stress hormones causes your brain to release even more stress hormones until you’re simply overwhelmed.
When excess amounts of stress hormones flood the brain over and over again, your baseline level of anxiety may increase. You might go from having mild anxiety, which most of us experience on a day-to-day basis, to moderate anxiety. Moderate anxiety is slightly more severe and overwhelming and makes you feel nervous and agitated on a regular basis. If your brain continues to be overly sensitive to anxiety, your baseline anxiety level might become so severe that you’re unable to continue thinking rationally. Panic attacks are another sign of severe anxiety. If you have moderate or severe levels of anxiety, brain maps called Quantitative Electroencephalography (qEEG) may show a large amount of high beta brain waves on the right lobe.
#2. Anxiety Makes Your Brain Hyperactive to Threats
- Anxiety can also make your brain hyperactive to threats. When you deal with anxiety on a consistent basis, your amygdala grows larger. The amygdala is a tiny almond-shaped structure located in the limbic system, the part of your brain that deals with emotions and moods. The amygdala is like your brain’s watchman, staying on the lookout for any danger or threats. When the amygdala notices potential danger, it sends signals to the hypothalamus, which triggers a fight or flight response. In the anxious brain, the amygdala is large and hypersensitive. Because of this, the amygdala sends a lot of false alarms. You can think of a hypersensitive amygdala as a watchman who cries wolf too often. An overactive amygdala sends false alarms so often that your brain senses threats even in non-threatening situations. That’s why people with anxiety disorders tend to feel threatened more often than someone without such a disorder.
#3. Anxiety Can Make It Hard for Your Brain to Reason Rationally
- Anxiety weakens the connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex (PFC). When the amygdala alerts the brain to danger, the prefrontal cortex should kick in and help you come up with a rational, logical response. The PFC ensures that you’re capable of processing information analytically and can make informed decisions, as well as helping you solve problems. You can think of the PFC as your brain’s wise counselor. In non-anxious brains, the prefrontal cortex responds rationally when the amygdala sends out alerts. This process doesn’t work the same in anxious brains. Instead, when the amygdala alerts the PFC to danger, the connection is weak. Thus the rational, problem-solving part of the brain isn’t heard, which can lead to irrational thoughts and erratic behavior.
#4. Anxiety Can Train Your Brain to Hold Onto Negative Memories
- When you’re anxious, your body is under a lot of stress. Stress shrinks the hippocampus, the part of the brain that processes long-term and contextual memory. When the hippocampus shrinks, it may become more difficult for your brain to hold onto memories. But here’s the tricky part: anxiety tricks the hippocampus into thinking that memories related to anxiety are safe to store and remember. So, the few memories you do hold onto will be those related to anxiety. In other words, anxiety wires your brain to remember failure, threat, and danger. Happier memories, like those of success, achievement, and safety, are buried deep in your brain’s basement.
Let Us Help Manage & Treat Your Anxiety
Here at StoneRidge Centers, we combine brain science with compassionate care. We know just how taxing anxiety can be on your brain. But we also know that with treatment and support, you can learn to manage anxiety. We created our mental health treatment program for that very reason.
Anxiety doesn’t have to take over your life. You don’t have to live in fear of the world or constantly worry about potential dangers. We can customize our comprehensive program to meet your needs. Contact us today at 928-583-7799 for a free and confidential conversation about managing your anxiety in a healthy way.
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