What Part Of The Brain Causes Anxiety?
Anxiety disorders affect millions of people worldwide.
They include things such as panic disorder, social phobia, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive fear or worry that interferes with everyday life.
The symptoms vary from person to person, but they often include feelings of dread, restlessness, irritability, trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, and muscle tension.
We’ve all felt anxious at some point in our lives.
But why does it happen? And what can we do to reduce its impact? Read on to find out more.
The Brain: What is It & How Does It Work
Your brain is a complex organ made up of billions of nerve cells called neurons. Neurons communicate with each other using electrical signals called action potentials.
These action potentials pass along information between your nerves and muscles, enabling you to think, remember, learn, see, hear, speak, move, eat, sleep, and even love.
Neural circuits carry out specific functions in your brain. For example, when you look at something, your eyes send visual signals to the visual cortex in your occipital lobe.
Your visual cortex then sends these signals to your temporal lobes where they help create memories about what you saw.
Neural circuits also enable you to feel emotions like happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, surprise, anticipation, anxiety and more.
When you experience an emotion, your amygdala – located deep within your limbic system – tells your hypothalamus how you should respond.
Your hypothalamus then communicates this response to your pituitary gland, which secretes hormones into your bloodstream.
The hormones that are responsible for feelings of anxiety (and linked feelings, such as stress) come from your adrenal glands, and are called adrenaline and cortisol.
The kidneys release these hormones into the bloodstream, and they prepare you for the fight or flight response.
If you’re feeling anxious right now, you may be experiencing a normal reaction to a stressful situation.
You might have been exposed to a stimulus that triggered a negative emotional response. Or, you could be experiencing a physical condition that triggers anxiety.
How Do We Know That Our Brains Cause Anxiety
There’s no doubt that your brain plays a role in causing anxiety. However, scientists don’t know exactly how it works.
There are many theories on how the brain controls emotions. One theory suggests that the amygdala is the main region responsible for emotions.
Another theory focuses on the hippocampus, a portion of the brain that helps form new memories.
Some researchers believe that the prefrontal cortex, another area of the brain, is involved in regulating emotions.
Regardless of the exact mechanism, there’s good evidence that the brain is responsible for producing certain feelings, including anxiety.
Scientists use imaging technology to study the brains of people who suffer from anxiety disorders.
They find that their brains differ significantly from those of healthy people.
These differences can include:
- Increased activity in areas of the brain associated with fear, anxiety, and stress
- Decreased activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex that control attention and inhibit impulsive behavior
- Differences in the connections between different parts of the brain
These findings suggest that the brain may play a key role in causing anxiety.
Some Major Effects that Anxiety has on the Brain
1. Anxiety saturates your brain with stress related hormones. When you are experiencing feelings of anxiety, your body is on high alert, and has started to prepare itself to confront the threat or flee.
For the fight or flight response, your body needs to flood your brain and central nervous system with both adrenaline and cortisol, which will help you fight off the threat, and help you cope with the danger that your brain thinks that you are in.
In a brain that does not have an anxiety disorder, when the danger is gone, regardless of whether that is a tiger or a school test, your sympatric nervous system takes over, and removes the hormones from your bloodstream.
In a brain that suffers from anxiety, the rush of stress hormones triggers a second rush of stress hormones, in a kind of positive feedback loop. This repeated escalating stress hormone level can increase your baseline anxiety over time.
So, you could start off with mild anxiety, which then developed into moderate anxiety. Your brain can continue getting more and more sensitive to anxiety and anxiety hormones if anxiety is left untreated.
2. Your brain can become hyperactive to threats, because constant feelings of anxiety can cause the amygdala to grow bigger.
This is an almond sized area of in your brain, which is part of the aforementioned limbic system, and is known to deal with moods and emotional responses.
It watches for threats or danger, but when you are suffering from enduring anxiety, the amygdala becomes large and oversensitive, making it signal for threats far more frequently, meaning that the hypothalamus sends far more false alarms and triggers the fight or flight responses a lot more.
3. Anxiety can train your brain to hold onto negative memories. When you are anxious, your body becomes physically stressed out. This stress shrinks the hippocampus, the parts of the brain that process long term and contextual memory.
When your hippocampus shrinks, it becomes harder for your brain to hold on to memories. However, when you are anxious, your brain thinks that memories which are related to are essential to hang onto for safety.
So, your brain prioritizes negative memories and forgets positive ones – totally skewing the way that you think about your life. Therefore, anxiety wires your brain towards remembering failure, threat, and fear.
How to Manage your Feelings of Anxiety
The best way to treat anxiety is by first identifying what’s causing it.
If you’re feeling like you’re having trouble breathing during exams, this means that there is something going on in your lungs, and you should seek medical attention.
The same goes for other physical symptoms such as stomach aches, headaches, etc.
Once you’ve identified the source of your anxiety, you can take steps to reduce it. Here are some tips:
- Take deep breaths. Try to breathe deeply several times throughout the day. This helps relax your muscles, and reduces tension. Deep breathing also gives your heart rate a little boost, so it may be helpful to practice yoga or meditation while trying to calm yourself down.
- Exercise regularly. Regular exercise releases endorphins. These are basically natural painkillers that make you feel good. Endorphins also act as neurotransmitters, and can help to regulate your mood.
- Eat healthy. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy products can improve your overall health. These foods have been linked to lower rates of depression, and they provide an abundance of antioxidants that help protect cells against damage caused by free radicals.
- Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep has been associated with increased levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), and thus higher levels of anxiety. Sleep deprivation can also lead to decreased productivity, impaired decision-making skills, and lowered immune function; all of which can contribute to heightened levels of anxiety.
- Stay busy. Engaging in activities that are enjoyable can help distract you from thoughts of worry. For example, if you find yourself worrying about schoolwork, try doing something fun instead. You could play video games, read a book, or watch a movie. If you’re worried about finances, consider volunteering at a local nonprofit organization.
- Talk to someone. Talking things through with friends, family members, or even a therapist can help you gain perspective on situations that seem overwhelming. Talking about your concerns with loved ones can also help alleviate feelings of isolation.
- Seek professional help. If none of these strategies work, talk to your doctor about getting medication to help control your symptoms. Medications used to treat anxiety include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, Lexapro, and Paxil, among others.
In conclusion, there are many factors that contribute to anxiety disorders – and there are complex neurological systems that cause anxiety in the first place, as well as worsen it in the long term.
If you are experiencing feelings of anxiety, then the first thing to know is that you are not alone, and that you do not need to suffer through this.
There are treatments available, and they work.
And, even though the symptoms may seem overwhelming, there is hope.
Reach out to family, friends, and medical professionals to talk about the way that you are thinking.
Author: Michelle Landeros, LMFT
Michelle Landeros is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist (LMFT). She is passionate about helping individuals, couples and families thrive.
Last updated: September 24, 2023