Anxiety is a normal human emotion. We all feel it from time to time. However, when anxiety becomes excessive or chronic, it can have very serious consequences on your physical and mental health. Anxiety is an umbrella term used to describe a collection of disorders that are characterized by feelings of fear, dread, and uneasiness.
There are many different types of anxiety disorders including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), etc. Anxiety disorders are far more common than most realize. In the U.S., anxiety disorders affect about 18% of adults, or 40 million people a year and roughly two-thirds of the population will experience some sort of anxiety in their lifetime.
To understand how these disorders affect the brain, it is important to know what anxiety is.
Anxiety can be defined as a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome. It is often accompanied by physical symptoms, such as increased heartbeat.
Anxiety is a complex phenomenon, and the brain plays an important role in it. The human brain has a built-in fight or flight response that allows the body to react to danger quickly. When we are faced with a real threat or feel threatened, the brain instantly reacts by releasing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline to increase heart rate and blood pressure to prepare the body to respond to a threat.
However, when a person is constantly filled with anxiety, the brain releases excessive amounts of stress hormones in response to insignificant threats. This results in a constant state of fight or flight that can have a very serious impact on one’s health. In this article, we will look at how the brain processes anxiety, what happens when anxiety becomes chronic, and how therapy can help to rewire the brain.
Anxiety is Processed in the Brain.
The human brain controls and regulates all of our bodily functions, thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, etc. Among other things that the brain does, it also serves as a control center for processing anxiety.
The amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure located in the brain’s medial temporal lobe, is one of the areas that play an important role in anxiety. The amygdala monitors what we see and hear and also serves as a warehouse for our emotions.
When we experience something negative such as physical pain or emotional stress, it is the amygdala that responds to these threats by preparing us for either fight or flight. This means that the amygdala stimulates the release of stress hormones to encourage stronger physical responses.
At the same time, it also communicates with certain parts of the brain that control emotions and memories to trigger feelings of fear or anxiety. For example, when we are afraid of something, this feeling comes from the amygdala communicating with another part of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is an area of the brain that plays a vital role in memory and spatial navigation. When it receives messages from the amygdala, it responds by telling us whether we are truly in danger or not. This helps us to determine whether to fight or flee our fears.
What Happens as Anxiety Becomes Chronic?
When anxiety becomes chronic (i.e., it occurs frequently and for longer periods of time) the brain changes in a number of ways. For example, increased activity at the amygdala causes it to become overly sensitive and more easily activated by stress hormones. At the same time, the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, becomes excessive. Both changes make the brain more likely to cause anxiety.
Over time, these changes can lead to new or stronger memories of emotions and experiences related to anxiety. This means that even minor threats are sufficient for triggering strong feelings of fear. When this happens, it becomes more difficult for people to keep their anxiety under control.
It is important to understand that the brain’s fight or flight response was meant for emergencies, not everyday stressors.
It was designed to protect us when we are in actual danger and help us to survive in critical situations. However, because chronic anxiety keeps the amygdala constantly activated, this area of the brain essentially becomes a threat detector that is always hypervigilant. To make matters worse, the amygdala signals the hippocampus to store any threatening events as memories.
These long-term memories help us remember that we are in danger, even when there is no real risk. Over time, anxiety changes not only how we feel but also how we think. The brain becomes more likely to misinterpret situations as stressful and threatening, even when they are not. It also begins to overestimate the likelihood of something bad happening in the future.
Rewiring the Anxious Brain
Developing new neural pathways through brain plasticity can help to rewire the brain. Brain plasticity is the ability of the brain to grow and change in response to experience. When the brain is anxious, it becomes hardwired (i.e., its neural pathways become fixed) to be overly sensitive to stress hormones and threats that are associated with anxiety.
New neural pathways can be developed by engaging in activities that force the brain to make new connections. Therapy is one way to rewire the brain. It helps you build new neural pathways that are healthy and help control anxiety symptoms. Mindfulness is another way to rewire the anxious brain. Mindfulness helps retrain the brain through mindfulness meditation, which will effectively help with anxiety.
How therapy and mindfulness help to rewire the brain:
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is commonly used to treat anxiety, however many different forms of psychotherapy can help to rewire the anxious brain. These therapies address negative thinking patterns which often perpetuate anxiety. For example, a therapist can help you understand how you can catastrophize situations, which exacerbates anxiety symptoms.
Learning mindfulness techniques such as meditation and deep breathing promotes a sense of calm, in these methods we learn to calm the mind to overcome anxiety by being in the moment. Mindfulness practice can change the brain’s structure and function, which can improve anxiety symptoms.
It strengthens neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex, which becomes more efficient at regulating emotions. Meditation may also lead to growth in gray matter in the hippocampus, which is important for learning and memory. Meditation also increases brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) which enhances mood and emotional well-being and can protect against stress and anxiety.