Anxiety Occurs Due To An Imbalance Between Emotional And Inhibitory Brain Parts
Anxiety is excessive worry or concern. It gets the body ready for action to fight danger. But what if no danger exists? Then, anxiety compels the sufferer to keep running from an invisible monster to an unknown destination. If you are a champion in the anxiety marathon, you know how this makes you unfit in other aspects of your life such as work, school, and relationships. It is common to suffer from both anxiety and depression.
Anxiety is different from fear. Fear is directed towards a specific stimulus when the stimulus is gone, so is the fear. Anxiety does not go away when the stimulus is gone because sometimes there is no stimulus! Particularly with the common generalized anxiety disorder, it is just a vague sense of intense worry and certainty that something dangerous will happen.
What is happening in the brain to magnify these infrequent threats? There seems to be an imbalance between the emotional and thinking inhibitory parts of the brain. Typically, the prefrontal cortex inhibits the emotional amygdala. The amygdala is a brain structure that is always on the lookout for threats so it can quickly react. You need it to be in full operation during a dangerous situation. However, in non-threatening situations, a healthy prefrontal cortex inhibits the lower parts and puts the brakes on the accelerated speed of the amygdala.
What Is The Biology Behind Stress
Stress is a biological response to things that happen to you. If you perceive a situation as stressful, the hypothalamus region of your brain begins the stress response. It starts by sending a message to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland then sends a message to the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are found on top of your kidneys. These glands then release the stress hormone cortisol.
During the stress response, your breathing and heart rate increase and your blood pressure goes up. With the help of cortisol, your liver will break down molecules and release more sugar into the blood. An increase in blood sugar level provides more energy for the body. This is critical for the fight or flight response. The increase in energy helps you to escape from or deal with a stressful situation. It also helps the body to return to a normal state afterward.
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During the stress response, some of your other body systems are less active. This includes your immune system and your digestive system. This is why you dont feel hungry during a stressful situation.
It is possible for people to adapt to moderate levels of stress over time. If you experience a stressful event over and over, the prefrontal cortex, or the command centre of the brain, recognizes the stressor and tells your hypothalamus that stress response is meant to be short-lived. Experiencing repeated or long-term stress means that cortisol levels in the body stay high.
Changes In The Amygdala And Hippocampus
Research on how anxiety affects the brain shows that the amygdala and hippocampus are two areas of the brain that suffer a direct blow from anxiety. The amygdala is an almond-shaped mass of gray matter in the brain involved with expressing emotions. Commonly thought of as a working part of a larger neural system, the amygdala is responsible for responses to fearful and threatening stimuli. Understandably, this is the area of the brain that plays a role in our emotions, especially in fear and anger. In addition, it’s been found that persistent anxiety can cause the amygdala to grow, intensifying the bodys response to threatening or scary situations.
Conversely, anxiety can cause the hippocampus to shrink. The hippocampus is an area of the brain that plays a major role in learning and memory. Its one of the most affected areas of the brain in individuals with psychological disorders like anxiety. The hippocampus connects to the amygdala, and together they control emotional memory recalling and regulation. Damage to the hippocampus can make it difficult for a person to remember things and form new memories. This area of the brain also contextualizes fear by linking fearful memories to places where they happened, explaining why individuals with anxiety disorders may avoid certain places.
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Anatomical And Neuroimaging Findings In Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
Activation of the amygdala is important for the fear learning associated with PTSD symptoms and with extinction learning associated with PTSD treatment. Amygdala hyperresponsiveness has been identified in numerous studies of patients who have PTSD . Greater activation of the amygdala in response to viewing fearful faces corresponded with poor prognosis in CBT other studies have shown that severity of PTSD symptoms predicts the magnitude of amygdala activation when encoding memories unrelated to the traumatic event.
A recent study examined the neural correlates of responsiveness to CBT in Iraq war veterans who had PTSD. Avoidance symptoms of PTSD are thought to result from conditioned fear-like encoding of the environment surrounding a traumatic event. CBT in PTSD attempts to override the conditioned fear with extinction learning. In patients who had recently diagnosed PTSD, rostral ACC volume predicted a successful CBT response. It is possible that decreased rostral ACC volume results in a decreased ability for extinction learning. Thus, patients who have PTSD and who have a smaller ACC volume may be less able to regulate fear during therapy, rendering the CBT process less effective. Functional imaging studies have shown that greater activation of the ventral ACC in response to viewing fearful faces corresponded with a poorer response to CBT.
Stress Increases Oxidative Damage In The Brain
Glutamate is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain that is enhanced when cortisol is present.
However, when glutamate levels rise, so does the production of reactive oxygen species, a potentially harmful chemical that causes cell damage.
These oxygen species damage and kill brain cells and have been linked to the development of Alzheimers and Parkinsons diseases.
Stress Inhibits Growth Of New Brain Cells
If new cells had formed in reaction to oxidative damage, things would not have been so awful, but stress has a way of shutting down the repair process as well. Cortisol inhibits a protein known as , which enhances the development of new brain cells. These speeds up the aging and degeneration of the brain, which might explain why some people have much more cognitive issues when they are under a lot of stress.
Stress Negatively Affects Levels Of Neurotransmitters
Neurotransmitters have a variety of roles in the brain, but the most well-known are those that control mood, motivation, concentration, and sleep patterns. Two of them, serotonin and dopamine, are depleted by cortisol, leaving you drowsy and unable to enjoy pleasure in ordinary life. Depression and suicidal ideation are common side effects, as are panic attacks and uncontrollable binge eating.
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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 youre simply overwhelmed.
#2. Anxiety Makes Your Brain Hyperactive to Threats
#3. Anxiety Can Make It Hard for Your Brain to Reason Rationally
#4. Anxiety Can Train Your Brain to Hold Onto Negative Memories
How Can You Reverse The Effects Of Stress On The Brain
Chronic stress can cause you to view more situations as stressful, as well as limit the ways youre able to respond to stressors.
Developing new ways of reacting to stress could help you build new connections in your brain that, over time, help you cope better. Approaches include:
- Practicing meditation.Research from 2019 found that 4 days of meditation resulted in changes to the brain that made it more resilient against stress. Even after 3 months, participants had maintained their new mental strength.
- Using prebiotics. A 2017 animal study suggests prebiotics found in many fermented foods could help people manage stress-related behaviors by keeping the paths on the brain-gut axis healthy and clear.
- Trying mindfulness-based stress reduction.2016 research found that 8 weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction increased activity in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex while decreasing activity in the amygdala, helping with emotional regulation.
- Going for a quick jog. Running for just 10 minutes can help boost executive functioning and increase blood flow to the prefrontal cortex.
- Working with a therapist. Forms of talk therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy could make the amygdala less reactive, meaning it could slow down your fight, flight, or freeze responses to stress and allow you to form new ways to manage stressors.
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Video: Basics Of Farm Stress
All of these outcomes and impacts of short-term stress have been known for decades. But, perhaps the more critical concern is the impact of chronic stress on our ability to think clearly and make good decisions. Stress hormones have a negative impact on the part of our brain that we need for:
- Evaluating alternatives and making good business decisions
- Having productive and thoughtful conversations with our family members, community members and others whose help we might need as we move forward during challenging times
These physical health, brain function, and decision making impairments often create a vicious cycle. When we find it difficult to make well-thought-through decisions and to move forward, sometimes this can lead to choices that might have less than desirable outcomes. A poorly contemplated decision can cause even more stress which further fuels this response. This cycle can lead to feelings of hopelessness, anxiety and other concerns, which then in turn may also be connected to depression and the risk of suicide. Fortunately, all these changes that occur under high stress can be managed and reversed, though it takes multiple tactics and strategies to tackle the issue holistically.
What Does Anxiety Make Your Brain Feel Like
People with anxiety always have difficulty concentrating and focusing, unclear thoughts, short-term memory problems, an inability to completely relax, and racing thoughts. When you experience anxiety, a certain part of your brain is triggered.
Researchers have found that the amygdala is often involved in anxiety. The amygdala is an almond-shaped group of nuclei located deep within the brain. It plays a role in how we process emotion and memory.
It also helps us respond to threats, which can lead to high levels of anxiety if your brain interprets a situation as dangerous or threatening. Anxiety affects people differently, but one thing is clear: it can make it hard to think clearly and perform well on tasks that require mental agility.
Anxiety can affect how much you sleep, too, by making it more difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. How Can I Manage Anxiety?
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Anxiety Affects Biochemistry And Vice Versa
When we talk about the biochemistry of anxiety, it can give the impression that your anxiety isn’t under your control. That could not be further from the truth. Your life experiences, emotions, and stress can actually change your neurotransmitters, just as neurotransmitters can affect your mood and anxiety.
In fact, studies have shown that even if you were born with low neurotransmitter levels, there is a great deal of evidence that effective coping strategies can increase those neurotransmitters even though the levels were created biologically. It’s the same reason that those whose life experience caused anxiety can be treated with medications that affect neurotransmitter levels. The two combine and contribute to each other, so even exploring the biochemistry of anxiety shouldn’t cause you to feel as though your anxiety is beyond your control.
Myth #: Anxiety Is Caused By A Chemical Imbalance In The Brain
Since the late 1980s, we were told that anxiety disorder, depression, and many other mental illnesses were caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.
It was claimed that mental illness, including anxiety disorder, was caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain. It was also claimed that correcting this imbalance with the right medication would resolve the mental illness.
The persuasion was so convincing that medications recommended to correct this imbalance saw multiple billions of dollars in sales each year. Many of these medications were in the top ten most sold medications year after year.
Yet, the chemical imbalance theory was never proven. It had always been speculated.
After independent research found the chemical imbalance cause for mental illness was false, and after finding medications used to treat this imbalance were largely ineffective, opinions began to change.
Due to pressure from independent research and from mental health professionals who knew mental illness wasnt caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, the chemical imbalance theory was discarded.
In 2011, the chemical imbalance cause for mental illness was officially put to rest by Dr. Ronald Pies, the editor-in-chief emeritus of the Psychiatric Times.
So, no, anxiety disorder is not caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. It never was.
You can learn more about the demise of the Chemical Imbalance theory:
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How Do I Shut My Brain Off For Anxiety
There are many ways to get relief from anxiety. You can talk to a friend, or call a hotline. You can take time for yourself and do something soothing like taking a bath, reading, playing video games, or drinking tea.
You can also try mindful meditation where you focus on your breathing quietly for five minutes. It might be helpful to write down your thoughts in order to rename themIm nervous becomes Im feeling some anxiety right now.
And finally, you can take action- do something that would make you feel more confident, like going for a walk or doing yoga.
Understanding How Stress Affects The Brain
Professionals working in health and human services or psychology have the opportunity to help others manage their stress effectively and understand how stress affects the brain. Touro University Worldwide offers a variety of fully online degree programs at the bachelors, masters and doctoral level that prepare students for careers in these fields.
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What Anxiety And Depression Does To Your Brain
Depression is a debilitating disease that runs rampant in todays world. It affects nearly 4.4 percent of the worlds population, a shockingly large number when looking at the size of the worlds population of 7 billion people, and the numbers keep growing. The disorders prominent status in society is followed closely by that of anxiety. Both disorders can deeply affect the life of the sufferer. The two psychiatric diseases pose a major concern for neuroscientists seeking to understand and find answers for sufferers of the disorders.
The great concern surrounding depression lies in its effect on the brain. Studies have shown that the condition causes the memory hub of the brain the hippocampus to shrink. While this may initially manifest as poor memory, it becomes far more problematic later in life. The presence of a shrunken hippocampus has become linked to the development of Alzheimers Disease and dementia in patients with neurocognitive disorder.
In the past, there have been fewer studies of the relationship between depression and anxiety when it combined in patients. However, more recent studies are taking steps to analyze the effect this comorbidity of the two disorders might have on the patient. Comorbidity of the two conditions has grown in concern as the conditions presence increases in society, particularly as the presence of both diseases in a patient have been noted to lead to poorer health and suicidal ideation.
What Is The Hippocampus
It is believed that the amygdala actually stores away anxious memories that may ultimately play a role in the development of anxiety disorders. It is the hippocampus that is responsible for embedding those memories into the amygdala. Because stress can shrink the hippocampus, and stress can be generated by anxiety, the types of memories that exist are linked to anxiety-related memories.
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Working Memory And Anxiety
Anxiety is a state of heightened vigilance that is associated with an increase in overall sensory sensitivity due to uncertainty or conflict . A characteristic feature of anxiety is the limited control over worrying thoughts and attentional biases, contributing to a greater focus on negative stimuli . It has been shown that anxiety disrupts cognitive performance , including WM . This relationship works both ways, as cognitive impairment can lead to increased anxiety .
In this study, we focused on self-reported state anxiety, the immediate sensation of feeling anxious, rather than temporally stable trait anxiety. The attentional control theory, proposed by Eysenck et al. , suggests that state anxiety impairs cognitive performance by giving greater influence to the stimulus-driven attentional system. The greater the anxiety, the more disruption this causes. A later paper on attentional control theory suggests that anxiety might affect only the executive component of WM : in a dual-task study of anxiety, the primary WM task performance in high anxious individuals decreased only if the additional task required executive control . A study by Gustavson and Miyake showed that worry is also associated with impaired WM updating.