How Does Anxiety Affect the Brain?

June 15, 2021

How Does Anxiety Affect the Brain?This morning, you might have felt uneasy or distressed over a school submission or a work presentation. This is normal. However, if you find that your worries and fears are getting out of hand and have become totally debilitating, then you might consider that you’re living with an anxiety-based condition. 

Anxiety disorders are the most common of all mental disorders in the United States. Some 40 million adults in the country have their brain functioning in a constant state of worry and fear, and the anxious state affects their physical health in different ways. 

Anxiety affects the brain, the main control system of your body, in diverse ways, hyperactivating areas of it that respond to threat. Here are some effects to watch out for. 

It Floods the Brain With Stress Hormones

Anxiety makes your body go on alert mode, prompting the brain to prepare for flight or fight. To help you in a potential fight, your brain floods the central nervous system with hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which warns your body of danger and helps you cope with it. 

These hormones make you sharper, prompt your reflexes to act faster and, as a potential downside, hinders you from reaching a state of calm. The rush of these stress hormones leads your brain to release more, until you become totally overwhelmed. 

It May Affect Rational Thinking

Anxiety weakens the links between the amygdala, a tiny almond-shaped structure in the limbic system or the part of the brain dealing with emotions, and the prefrontal cortex of the brain. When there’s danger that the amygdala alerts to, the PFC kicks in and induces a rational response, ensuring you can process information analytically and make informed decisions. 

A non-anxious brain can do this fine. However, the process doesn’t work the same way in anxious brains: when the amygdala alerts to danger, the connection with PFC weakens, so what comes up is irrational thinking and behavior.

It Makes the Brain Cling to Negative Memories

Anxiety subjects your body to plenty of stress. This then shrinks the hippocampus, the brain area processing long-term as well as contextual memory. When this part shrinks, your brain may be hard-pressed to hold onto memories. 

An anxious state also tricks the hippocampus into thinking that anxiety-related memories should be stored and remembered. As a result, the memories you tend to have relate to those of anxiety, making you wired for threat and danger. 

What happens to happier memories? They get buried deep in the basement of your brain. 

It May Lead to Hippocampal Degeneration

New research found a potential link between prolonged stress and anxiety and the structural degeneration of the hippocampus. It can also lead to impaired functioning of the prefrontal cortex of the brain. 

What this means: The wear and tear of the brain resulting from chronic anxiety could lead to an increased risk of depression and dementia. 

Final Note

Most of the damage to the brain, however, may not be completely irreversible, where plasticity allows the brain to achieve some level of regrowth as well as regeneration. You can also take a few everyday steps to fight anxiety, starting with your lifestyle:

  • Take a timeout as you need it.
  • Eat a raw, wholesome, well-balanced diet. 
  • Get enough restful sleep. 
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine intake, which can trigger panic attacks. 
  • Exercise regularly, favoring high-intensity interval training if you can. 
  • Practice taking deep breaths and mindful meditation regularly. 

 

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