What Happens in Your Brain When You Have Anxiety?

Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder reaching over 40 million adults. There has been much discussion on how anxiety can impact a person physically or even how it interferes with daily life.

The lesser discussed impact is how anxiety affects the brain itself. Our powerhouse control center that is the brain is very susceptible to anxiety’s negative impacts. By knowing what happens in the brain, it will make more sense to know the why for the other symptoms you may experience.

Anxiety Increases Stress Hormones

In times of anxiousness, your body enters a high alert phase. This fight-or-flight mode causes an increase in adrenaline and cortisol production in the brain. These chemicals enter the chat room and tell your body that it should brace for something scary to happen.

The role of these hormones is to assist the brain-body communication to cope with the stressful situation. Once the triggering event is over, your sympathetic nervous system returns you to a calm state.

In an anxious brain, however, there is an over-production of these hormones and you are not able to successfully return to a state of calm. Instead, the rush makes you feel more overwhelmed and causes you to remain in that heightened state. Chronically, this will make your anxiety higher.

Anxiety Decreases Rationalization

In a non-anxious brain, the amygdala communicates with the prefrontal cortex, allowing for logical and rational responses. The amygdala is involved with emotional regulation and processing of threatening stimuli. It’s a watchdog of sorts. The prefrontal cortex makes sure you are able to correctly process information and stimuli.

Having anxiety reduces the ability of these two parts to interact appropriately and can result in a diminished differentiation of a safe vs. an unsafe situation. Your brain has a harder time making decisions based on the information presented, often misinterpreted.

The amygdala’s ineffective communication skills cause the rational decision-making portion of your brain to be overridden. Thoughts become irrational and erratic and stressed behavior can occur.

man kneeling on ground with head resting on kneesAnxiety Causes Hyperactivity

With constant exposure to anxiety over time, your brain’s amygdala grows in size. Since the amygdala’s job is to watch for dangerous or threatening situations, a normal function is to send messages to the hypothalamus to induce the fight-or-flight response.

This increase in size can result in overactive signals from the amygdala. It becomes a boy who cried wolf situation, constantly sending out false alarms. Your brain begins to perceive any situation, good or bad, as something threatening.

Anxiety Can Impact Memory

We established that anxiety can make your amygdala larger. It also causes shrinkage of the hippocampus, which is the memory center of your brain. This area of the brain focuses on long-term memory and contextual memory.

Non-anxious brains process stressors effectively and efficiently and experience little impact on memory from that. Constantly feeling anxiety, however, can thus lead to impaired memory and possibly even confusion.

This becomes even more complicated when anxiety works further against the hippocampus and tricks it into believing memories correlated with anxiety are best to store. Memories you maintain are then linked with a negative view. Your brain rewires itself to hold on to fear, threat, danger, and failure front and center. These negative views can weave into behavior and cause more significant mental health issues.

Anxiety Doesn’t Have to Win

This is a lot of science-based information on how anxiety can cause structural or chemical changes in the brain. Little changes in the brain’s functioning can cause larger impacts down the road. Are you struggling with anxiety? Many of these aspects can be treated and managed to return to regular functioning. Contact us today to learn more about the benefits of anxiety treatment.