Thursday, May 5, 2022

How Does Anxiety Affect The Brain

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You Learn By Doing Things Over And Over Again

How stress affects your brain – Madhumita Murgia

When you learn things about your family, it becomes a part of your brain’s neural pathways and associations. Remembering your mother brings back many memories because they are all tied together or bundled together by these neural pathways or associations in the brain.

Anything you learn, regardless of what it is, becomes a part of the vast neuronal associations in the brain, which contain over one billion nerve cells.

When you learn that Alexander the Great tried to conquer the world, as did Napoleon, your brain ties these people together into a neural association in your brain concerning history, historical events, and leaders who lived in the past.

When you learn to tie your shoes, ride a bicycle, drive a car, use a computer keyboard, or learn a musical instrument, your brain gradually develops the neural pathways to make your “practicing” become automatic. These are literal brain nerve cells and they associate together with other brain cells that relate to the “subject” you’ve learned.

The more you practice and learn, and the more quality time you put into your practice, the more that your brain pathways change. Fairly soon, you know how to tie your shoes and you don’t think about it anymore. This practice you did has made tying your shoes become automatic.

It is exactly the same way with cognitive therapy for social anxiety.

How Anxiety Scrambles Your Brain And Makes It Hard To Learn

Levels of stress and anxiety are on the rise among students. Juliet Rix has tips to control the panic and thrive academically

Olivia admits shes always been a worrier but when she started university, her anxiety steadily began to build. One day she was simply too frightened to leave the house. For two weeks she was stuck indoors, before she was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder and began to get the help she needed.

With support from her GP and university wellbeing service, and courses of cognitive behavioural therapy , she was able to stick with her university course and to start enjoying life again.

But Olivia is far from alone in her anxiety: the number of students declaring a mental health problem has doubled in the last five years, to at least 115,000.

And that is a very small proportion of the students who are having mental health difficulties, says Ruth Caleb, chair of Universities UKs mental wellbeing working group.

A study of UK undergraduates has found that even among students symptom-free before starting university, some 20% are troubled by a clinically significant level of anxiety by the middle of second year.

What does anxiety do to students? It causes the body to prepare itself for fight or flight.

If you are in a situation of imminent actual threat, then the increased alertness and body response can be lifesaving, explains Chris Williams, professor of psychosocial psychiatry at the University of Glasgow, and medical advisor to Anxiety UK.

Increased Levels Of Stress Hormones

The link between anxiety and brain function involves the sympathetic nervous system. This system controls the bodys rapid and involuntary responses to dangerous or stressful situations. The brains attempt to fight off whatever makes you anxious causes a flood of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol in the central nervous system, increasing the bodys alertness, heart rate, reflexes, respiration, and blood flow into the muscles. This reaction is also commonly known as fight or flight. Once this feeling passes, the parasympathetic nervous system undoes the work of the sympathetic system by decreasing respiration and heart rate and promoting relaxation.

However, an anxious brain may struggle to relax once the perceived danger is gone and may continue to activate the release of stress hormones until its overwhelmed. The baseline level of a persons anxiety can increase until they hit a point where they can no longer think rationally. If you have anxiety, its better to receive treatment for it sooner rather than later.

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How Anxiety Disorders Affect Your Brain

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, over 40 million people in the US over the age of 18 suffer from some anxiety-related disorder. Millions more go undiagnosed every year. These statistics are a reminder of the many individuals that live with anxiety disorders and their effects everyday. Anxiety doesnt just affect your mental health it also affects your physical health. Anxiety can make you physically ill. These sicknesses can be temporary, but excessive worry and stress can cause serious health problems including:

  • Digestive issues
  • Higher risk for substance abuse
  • Behavioral changes
  • Heart problems

Now that were familiar with the physical effects of anxiety, lets discuss what happens to the brain when youre experiencing anxiety. Before you begin to feel the physical effects of anxiety, your body is at work processing your emotions. Im sure youve felt that familiar feeling of anxiety increase in heart rate, a pit in your stomach, etc. Anxiety is part of your bodys natural response to fear and stress. Sometimes referred to as your fight or flight response, anxiety triggers this and your system floods with norepinephrine and cortisol which are both designed to give you a boost to perception, reflexes, and speed in dangerous situations. Your body is essentially preparing itself for survival. An increase in heart rate sends more air into your lungs to prepare you for whatever may lay ahead.

How And Where Does Anxiety Start In The Brain

How Does Stress &  Anxiety Affect Your Body

When we get scared or anxious, the startle response is picked up by the amygdala in the brain. This is when we begin to sweat, our heart races, energy surges, blood pressure increases. This all occurs even before we are actually aware of the threat! We will cover more of this in our next post.

The amygdala then sends information to the thalamus. This area of the brain takes in all sensory information and sends messages to the appropriate areas of the brain including the cortex.

Once the messages about the threat reaches the cortex, it is the cortex that decides if the threat is actually dangerous or not. If so, the response of the amygdala is reinforced and the fight or flight response continues!

Lets take a look at the function of brain structures that may play a role in allowing anxiety to increase.

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Were Wired For Stress

The good news is that stress is completely natural and expected, and our bodies and brains have evolved accordingly to deal with threats.

For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, stress might have meant an immediate threat to ones survival happening upon a wild animal or stepping on a poisonous snake, for example causing the brain to kick the body into high gear to meet that threat.

Upon encountering a stressor, this ancient humans brain would have immediately engaged the adrenal and autonomic nervous systems, which release adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream, which quickly floods the body and prepares it to do what it needs to do to survive.

Specifically, heres how the brain and body respond:

You may have heard this referred to as the fight or flight response. It means that were highly adapted to deal with acute stress because stress management is literally wired into our DNA. Ostensibly, thats a very good thingafter all, here we all are, so it seems it worked out for our ancestors fairly well.

So whats the problem?

While our brains havent really changed much in the last 40-50 thousand years , our lifestyles have changed drastically. Threats from wild animals have become threats of deadlines, traffic, bills, family conflict, and more. These modern stresses arent actually going to eat you alive but your brain doesnt understand that.

You Can Change How You React

  • Stress is a fact of life. You cant change it, but you can change how you react to stress. Here are three ways you can practice training your body to reset its stress response:
  • Recognize it
  • The first part, and often hardest part of dealing with stress is simply recognizing consciously that its there. Often, we unconsciously run from stress before we even have a chance to deal with it, often in less than healthy ways. But instead of running away or avoiding it, what about just looking at it? By stopping and just recognizing oh, this is stressful can go a long way towards diffusing the situation.

  • Feel the body
  • When we feel stress, we often carry it in our bodies. If you could do a mental inventory the moment youre under stress, youre likely to notice tense, raised shoulders, a tight belly and jaw, or various aches and pains. Everyone is different, and stress presents differently for everyone. But paying attention to where you actually physically feel stress in the body has a tendency to help release it.

  • Change your mindset
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    Effects Of Chronic Stress On The Brain

    While stress itself is not necessarily problematic, the buildup of cortisol in the brain can have long-term effects. Thus, chronic stress can lead to health problems.

    Cortisols functions are part of the natural process of the body. In moderation, the hormone is perfectly normal and healthy. Its functions are multiple, explains the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. In addition to restoring balance to the body after a stress event, cortisol helps regulate blood sugar levels in cells and has utilitarian value in the hippocampus, where memories are stored and processed.

    But when chronic stress is experienced, the body makes more cortisol than it has a chance to release. This is when cortisol and stress can lead to trouble. High levels of cortisol can wear down the brains ability to function properly. According to several studies, chronic stress impairs brain function in multiple ways. It can disrupt synapse regulation, resulting in the loss of sociability and the avoidance of interactions with others. Stress can kill brain cells and even reduce the size of the brain. Chronic stress has a shrinking effect on the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning.

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    How Anxiety Affects the Brain 9/30 How to Recognize and Turn off the Fight/Flight/Freeze Response

    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.

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    Anatomical And Neuroimaging Findings In Panic Disorder

    Neuroimaging in patients who have panic disorder under resting conditions and under anxiety- or panic-provoking conditions has identified neuroanatomical alterations associated with symptom severity or treatment response.

    Single-photon emission computed tomography identified lower metabolism in the left inferior parietal lobe and overall decreased bilateral cerebral blood flow in patients who had PD as compared with control subjects, and this decrease corresponded with symptom severity. Other studies, however, have demonstrated elevated glucose uptake in the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, midbrain, caudal pons, medulla, and cerebellum as measured by positron emission tomography . These elevations normalize after successful pharmacological or behavioral therapy, suggesting that the increased glucose uptake in these regions is state dependent. Patients who had PD had decreased frontal activity bilaterally but increased activity in the right medial and superior frontal lobe in SPECT studies. Interestingly, the CBF asymmetry and shift to the right hemisphere correlated with disorder severity in individual patients .

    How Anxiety And Memory Loss Are Connected

    The stress response sheds light on how repeated anxiety can lead to memory loss. When your body reacts to real or perceived threats, electrical activity in the brain increases and produces adrenaline and cortisol. Memory loss can result if that process occurs when fear or anxiety is excessive or persists beyond developmentally appropriate periods. Thats because anxiety and stress tax the bodys resources.

    Research like the study published in Brain Sciences acknowledges the relationship between high levels of anxiety and memory loss. One study in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that anxiety disorder is interrelated and inseparablewith loss of memory. It added how anxiety is likely an early predictor of future cognitive decline and possibly future cognitive impairment.

    There is still a great deal to learn about the connection between anxiety and memory loss, which is an ongoing research topic. For instance, thanks to a first-of-its-kind study, there is now evidence that acute stress disrupts the process behind collecting and storing memories. Researchers found that short-term stress-activated certain molecules that in turn limit processes in the brains learning and memory region. As a result, given the link between anxiety and stress, both long-term and short-term anxiety can impact memory.

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    Surprising Ways That Stress Affects Your Brain

    Carly Snyder, MD is a reproductive and perinatal psychiatrist who combines traditional psychiatry with integrative medicine-based treatments.

    Stress is a familiar and common part of daily life. Stress happens each and every day and comes in a wide variety of forms. It might be the stress of trying to juggle family, work, and school commitments. It might involve issues like health, money, and relationships.

    In each instance where we face a potential threat, our minds and bodies go into action, mobilizing to either deal with the issues or avoid the problem .

    You have probably heard all about how bad stress is for your mind and body. It can lead to physical symptoms such as headaches and chest pain. It can produce mood problems such as anxiety or sadness. It can even lead to behavioral problems such as outbursts of anger or overeating.

    What you might not know is that stress can also have a serious impact on your brain. In the face of stress, your brain goes through a series of reactionssome good and some baddesigned to mobilize and protect itself from potential threats. Sometimes stress can help sharpen the mind and improve the ability to remember details about what is happening.

    Stress can have negative effects on the body and brain. Research has found that stress can produce a wide range of negative effects on the brain ranging from contributing to mental illness to actually shrinking the volume of the brain.

    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.

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    What Does Science Say About The Effects Of Anxiety And Fear On The Brain What Happens On The Physiological Level When We Experience These Nasty Sensations

    From a religious perspective, fear is a product of ignorance. People are not aware of their true nature. They dont know that they are not dying. They dont disappear they dont enter a state of non-existence after their death.

    The fear of death is a mother to all other fears we experience. We are afraid of heights because were afraid were going to fall and die. Were afraid of hospitals because they remind us of sickness and death. Every single fear is related to this major uneasiness we all have in our subconscious mind.

    Lets leave spirituality aside, shall we? Not all of us believe in life after death, so we have to look for proven arguments and facts about the effects of anxiety and fear on our bodies.

    Practicing On A Behavior Allows It To Become Automatic Over Time

    What you learn changes the neural associations in your brain. What is in those neural pathways or associations becomes permanent.

    Now, how do brain chemicals, neurochemistry, and “imbalances” of brain chemistry fit here?

    Your neural pathways and associations influence and decide which neurochemicals, and at what “strength” pass through the synapse . Your neurochemistry is determined by your neural pathways and associations, not the other way around.

    Medication or pills can change your brain chemistry temporarily. But, medications have no power to change neural pathways or associations. There is no cure for social anxiety in medication. There is a temporary, chemical change in your brain brought about by the medication. But it lasts only as long as the medication is synthesized to last, from four hours to longer periods. But it is never permanent. You always need to take another pill to get the same effect.

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