May 23

How Does Anxiety Affect The Brain?

Did you know that more than 40% of people in the United States alone suffer from some form of anxiety? As today's modern world only gets faster and faster, more people are starting to develop an anxiety disorder. No matter what type of anxiety one has, the condition can be debilitating in severe cases and it can make one's life thoroughly unenjoyable. 


But how does anxiety affect the brain exactly? Is an anxious person's brain all that different from a brain that doesn't suffer from anxiety? More than that, how does anxiety impact one's life as a result of changes in the brain and is there any way to treat this condition?


Outpatient anxiety therapy, Elkridge, Maryland, might be able to help. Keep reading and learn more about how anxiety affects the brain and how the condition can affect your way of life.

What Is Anxiety Exactly?

Anxiety comes in many different forms and each of those forms can vary in severity. For example, social anxiety is one of the most common forms of anxiety. It involves being afraid of people, talking to people, and otherwise interacting with people in any way. 


Since living a normal life requires interacting with people on a daily basis, you can imagine that this form of anxiety can be crippling, especially when the anxiety is severe. People with social anxiety not only have difficulty forming close relationships but some even have difficulty going outside and going out to public environments. 


Even going to the store to buy groceries can be a hard task for those with social anxiety. In some cases, a panic attack may result if a person with anxiety tries to go beyond his zone of comfort. A panic attack can include symptoms such as heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, sweating, chills, nausea, and chest pain. 

Some people who have panic attacks may mistake the symptoms for a heart attack.

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Generalized Anxiety

Generalized anxiety is another type of anxiety that permeates a person's entire life, not just the person's social life. A person with generalized anxiety may be nervous about things even if there is no reason to be nervous. 


Being anxious without any reason to be anxious can be especially detrimental to a person's life. Every decision that a person tries to make is full of fear and uncertainty. As you can imagine, being in a constant state of fear is not healthy for the body or mind. 


That's because when you're anxious, your brain will release stress hormones. Normally, these hormones aim to help you get out of the occasional stressful situation. When someone is anxious for no reason, these stress hormones do more harm than good. 

Your Brain Is Overflowing with Stress Hormones

How can anxiety affect your brain? Stress hormones play a big part in the answer to that question. As mentioned before, stress hormones help us escape stressful and potentially dangerous situations. 

For example, thousands of years ago, humans had to defend themselves against wild animals such as bears. When you see a bear, you become anxious because you know that the bear could harm you.


As a natural response, your brain will produce stress hormones that will activate your fight or flight response. 


This response will help you to escape the danger in front of you one way or another. Specifically, these stress hormones (which are produced by the sympathetic nervous system) are called adrenaline and cortisol. They will fill you with energy that will increase the speed of your reflexes and increase your ability to sense certain things. 

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The Details

In this scenario, once you escape danger (the bear), your stress hormones will dissipate and you will no longer feel fear or anxiety. Then, the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for resting and digesting will kick in so you can relax again. However, for some people, this fine balance of stress hormones isn't so easily controlled.


If you suffer from anxiety, something might trigger your anxiety and fear response but even after the trigger is gone, your brain will continue to produce stress hormones. Your brain will continue to get more and more stressed until you are overwhelmed with anxiety. This usually concludes with a panic attack, although some people can maintain high stress levels for weeks or months at a time. 


This can also turn cases of mild anxiety into moderate or severe anxiety in a short time. But that isn't the only way anxiety affects the brain.

Difficulty Forming Rational Thoughts

People with anxiety often have a hard time forming rational thoughts. That's one of the many reasons why anxiety therapy, Elkridge, Maryland, is so important. When your brain is overwhelmed with stress hormones, you won't be able to think clearly. 


That's because the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, two very important regions in the brain, won't be as strongly connected as they usually are. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for allowing us to come up with rational thoughts and make good decisions. On the other hand, the amygdala is responsible for telling the rest of the brain that there is danger afoot. 


In the case of anxiety, the amygdala will tell the brain that there is danger present even if there isn't any real danger to think of. Normally, the prefrontal cortex would come up with a rational decision for how to avoid the danger. However, in anxious brains, this process doesn't work as well.

The Anxious Brain

Instead, an anxious brain will not be able to activate the prefrontal cortex as usual. As a result, the brain will not be able to come up with rational decisions when it comes to reacting to the perceived threat. That's why people with anxiety may have thoughts that are not rational and may sometimes behave in irrational ways. 


For example, a person with social anxiety may be terrified to go to the grocery store. There is no real reason to be afraid of going to the store, but the anxious brain creates irrational thoughts. The socially anxious person may be afraid to talk to the cashier upon checking out or afraid to say hello to anyone. 

Even though there is no danger present, the person may be so anxious that he may refuse to go to the store. 

Anxiety Causes You to Remember More Negative Memories

Many people with anxiety find that they are able to mostly remember negative memories rather than positive ones. This is no coincidence and therapy for anxiety, Elkridge, MD, will be able to teach you more about it. Anxiety can strongly affect the hippocampus. 


The hippocampus is a structure in the brain responsible for forming, recalling, and consolidating memories. It is especially important for long-term and contextual memory. Without it, you wouldn't be able to process memories and store them in your brain to remember for years to come.


When you are often stressed, this stress will actually start to shrink the hippocampus. As this brain structure shrinks, it will become less effective at processing memories and storing them for later as it usually does. But that still doesn't explain why anxious people remember more negative rather than positive memories. 

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The Hippocampus and Anxiety

Shouldn't anxious people have fewer negative and positive memories as the hippocampus shrinks? Not necessarily. Anxiety affects the hippocampus so that this brain structure stores only memories that are linked to anxiety. 


Anxious memories are regarded as "safe" to store and therefore make it to your brain's long-term memory. In contrast, positive memories are those that are not linked to anxiety. For that reason, your anxiety will tell the hippocampus that these memories are not safe for storage. 


The result is that you will be able to recall more negative memories than positive memories. This does not necessarily mean that you didn't remember those positive memories. However, it is harder to recall them. 

Of course, forgetting your positive memories in favor of negative memories is no fun. That's why having your anxiety treated is important. That way, you will be on your way to having a happier and healthier brain.

How Does Anxiety Affect the Brain?

How does anxiety affect the brain? This mental disorder changes the brain in a variety of ways including how the brain processes memory and forms rational thoughts. Anxiety causes the brain to flood with stress hormones. 


As a result, a person with anxiety is unable to relax even if there isn't anything to be anxious about. Constant anxiety can actually cause structural changes to the brain such as shrinkage of the hippocampus. To learn more about outpatient treatment, don't hesitate to contact us here.


Tags

Causes of Anxiety, Therapy for Anxiety


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