What Anxiety Does to Your Brain and What You Can Do About It
Anxiety is a natural, normal response to potential threats, which puts your body into a heightened state of awareness.
We all deal with anxiety in some form or another, whether it’s when you’re pulled over by the cops or about to give a speech in front of a crowd. But for some, anxiety is a much stronger, more fearsome force—one that never goes away. But what is anxiety exactly, and what’s going on in your mind (and your body) when anxiety strikes? How do you cope when it takes hold?
Anxiety disorders are different, though. They can cause such distress that it interferes with your ability to lead a normal life.
This type of disorder is a serious mental illness. For people who have one, worry and fear are constant and overwhelming, and can be disabling. But with treatment, many people can manage those feelings and get back to a fulfilling life.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a chronic disorder characterized by excessive, long-lasting anxiety and worry about nonspecific life events, objects, and situations.
GAD sufferers often feel afraid and worry about health, money, family, work, or school, but they have trouble both identifying the specific fear and controlling the worries. Their fear is usually unrealistic or out of proportion with what may be expected in their situation. Sufferers expect failure and disaster to the point that it interferes with daily functions like work, school, social activities, and relationships.
The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) says that over 40 million people in the US over the age of 18 suffer from some anxiety-related disorder, and those are just the people who have been diagnosed, or whose symptoms fit into a pre-described condition. Millions more go undiagnosed.
On the other hand, anxiety itself is a natural human response that serves a purpose. Our goal shouldn’t be to dismiss it entirely, just to make it a healthy, manageable part of our lives. Even if you don’t suffer from an anxiety-related disorder, you’ve likely had to deal with it and cope the best way you know how. Anxiety is part of our world, the same way stress, sadness, and happiness are, but the key is understanding how to cope with it, and how to keep it from becoming unhealthy.
To help us get there, let’s talk about what exactly is going on in your brain when anxiety strikes, how it impacts us, and then what we can do about it, with the help of some experts.
What Happens When Anxiety Attacks?
Anxiety does evoke the same “fight or flight” response that stress does, which means, like stress, anxiety will trigger a flood of stress hormones like cortisol designed to enhance your speed, reflexes, heart rate, and circulation. However, stress can occur with feelings of anger, sadness, or even happiness and excitement.
Anxiety, on the other hand, virtually always involves a sense of fear, dread, or apprehension. And while stress may occur due to an external source (like an argument with your spouse), anxiety tends to be a more internal response.
Further, brief anxiety may coincide with a stressful event (such as speaking in public), but an anxiety disorder will persist for months even when there’s no clear reason to be anxious. While the exact causes for anxiety disorders are unknown, your brain is actively involved.
The brain creates billions of neural pathways
The brain is literally creating new neural pathways, much like the interstate highway system, that carries information from one neuron to the next. The neurons clump together and are associated with each other as one thing leads you to think of another thing, or as one task must be understood to understand the following one. For our purposes, we should note that these brain associations can trigger anxiety and release it into our system. (The feeling of anxiety is a rush of adrenaline and cortisol, two hormones in the body.)
This is quite normal because everything we learn — everything you learned in school and at the job — becomes part of our neural associations or pathways.
What’s Actually Happening In Your Brain When You Feel Anxious?
You know the feeling: That tense sensation in your stomach, the heightened sense of awareness you have about everything going on around you, the slight fear or sense of dread—that’s anxiety. Before your body feels the effects however, your brain is already at work. The National Institute of Mental Health guide to anxiety disorders also offers this description of the neurological processes at work:
Several parts of the brain are key actors in the production of fear and anxiety. Using brain imaging technology and neurochemical techniques, scientists have discovered that the amygdala and the hippocampus play significant roles in most anxiety disorders.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that is believed to be a communications hub between the parts of the brain that process incoming sensory signals and the parts that interpret these signals. It can alert the rest of the brain that a threat is present and trigger a fear or anxiety response. The emotional memories stored in the central part of the amygdala may play a role in anxiety disorders involving very distinct fears, such as fears of dogs, spiders, or flying.
The hippocampus is the part of the brain that encodes threatening events into memories. Studies have shown that the hippocampus appears to be smaller in some people who were victims of child abuse or who served in military combat. Research will determine what causes this reduction in size and what role it plays in the flashbacks, deficits in explicit memory, and fragmented memories of the traumatic event that are common in PTSD.
The feeling of anxiety is part of your body’s stress response. Your fight or flight response is triggered, and your system is flooded with norephinephrine and cortisol. Both are designed to give you a boost to perception, reflexes, and speed in dangerous situations. They increase your heart rate, get more blood to your muscles, get more air into your lungs, and in general get you ready to deal with whatever threat is present. Your body turns its full attention to survival. Ideally, it all shuts down when the threat passes and your body goes back to normal.
What Are the Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders?
It depends on the type of anxiety disorder, but general symptoms include:
- Feelings of panic, fear, and un
- Problems sleeping
- Cold or sweaty hands or feet
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- Not being able to be still and calm
- Dry mouth
- Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
- Muscle tension
What Are the Causes of Anxiety Disorders?
The exact cause of anxiety disorders is unknown, but anxiety disorders — like other forms of mental illness — are not the result of personal weakness, a character flaw, or poor upbringing. As scientists continue their research on mental illness, it is becoming clear that many of these disorders are caused by a combination of factors, including changes in the brain and environmental stress.
How Are Anxiety Disorders Treated?
Fortunately, much progress has been made in the last two decades in the treatment of people with mental illnesses, including anxiety disorders. Although the exact treatment approach depends on the type of disorder, one or a combination of the following therapies may be used for most anxiety disorders:
Medication : Drugs used to reduce the symptoms of anxiety disorders include many antidepressants, certain anticonvulsant medicines and low-dose antipsychotics, and other anxiety-reducing drugs.
Psychotherapy : Psychotherapy (a type of counseling) addresses the emotional response to mental illness. It is a process in which trained mental health professionals help people by talking through strategies for understanding and dealing with their disorder.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy: This is a particular type of psychotherapy in which the person learns to recognize and change thought patterns and behaviors that lead to troublesome feelings.
Dietary and lifestyle changes.
People can and do overcome social anxiety.
The solution is in the practice, repetition, and constant reinforcement. Progress can be made relatively quickly, faster than most people expect, but there is no substitute for practice and repetition. This does take time and patience, but every three weeks or so, if you practice cognitive-behavioral therapy for social anxiety disorder each day, you will find you have made some major progress. This progress occurs because your brain has literally made changes.
Don’t Try to Suppress Anxiety, Learn to Cope Instead: This Isn’t a Willpower Issue. With the right attention, learning to cope with and minimize unnecessary anxiety is something we can all do.
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