About Anxiety

Anxiety and the Brain: An Introduction

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10th, 2020

Anxiety and the Brain: An Introduction

It should come as little surprise that your brain is the source of your anxiety. Not only does anxiety manifest itself in thoughts – it also affects your brain chemistry in a way that can alter future thoughts and affect the way your entire body operates.

Anxiety may be a troubling disorder, but it is also a fascinating one. Anxiety can cause physical symptoms even when you don't feel anxious, genuinely change the way you respond to life events, and reinforce itself based on the behaviors that you change as a result of your anxiety. In this article, we'll examine the complex relationship between anxiety and the brain.

Don't Sweat the Biology

Anxiety may be forged by years of experiences. But in some cases, you may have been born with trouble creating some of the neurotransmitters that control mood, indicating that you were predisposed for developing anxiety.

What's amazing about the brain, however, is that even if your anxiety is in your DNA, you can still control it with the right anxiety treatments.

Neurotransmitters and Anxiety

Your brain responds directly to neurotransmitters – little chemicals inside your body that send messages to your brain about how you should feel, think, act, and more. Many neurotransmitters have been linked to anxiety, including:

  • Serotonin
  • GABA
  • Norepinephrine

Even dopamine may play a role in anxiety, or at least have a calming effect on those already living with anxiety symptoms. Interestingly, too much or too little of any hormone may also effect anxiety in different ways. The problem is with balance. If your brain doesn't have enough serotonin, for example, it may cause you to experience anxiety symptoms.

When it comes to neurotransmitter production, the truth is that cause and effect are rarely known. It's often impossible to distinguish between poor neurotransmitter balance as a result of life experience, or poor neurotransmitter balance as a result of genetics. Both can occur in anyone living with anxiety, and in some cases a combination of both may be responsible for anxiety symptoms.

Anxiety and Brain Activation

There are two different parts to an anxiety disorder, and someone with anxiety may suffer from one or both. The first part is mental – verbal worries, nervous thoughts, etc. The second part of anxiety is physical. For example, a racing heartbeat, panic attacks, lightheadedness, and other physical symptoms.

It's possible to experience physical symptoms with less worry, and it's possible to worry often without many physical symptoms. Researchers also found that both of these excited different parts of the brain. Those with worried thoughts showed more left brain activity when nervous. Those with physical symptoms experienced more right brain activity.

Another study looked at the way that those with a spider phobia reacted to the belief that they were going to encounter a spider. They found that those with the phobia had their dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), insula, and thalamus become more active than those without a phobia.

Yet another study at the University of Wisconsin – Madison found that those with generalized anxiety disorder appeared to have a weaker connection between the white matter area of the brain and the prefrontal and anterior cortex. This was compared to those without generalized anxiety disorder and the results appeared to be significant.

These are just some of the ways that anxiety can activate the brain.

Hormones and Anxiety

Hormone balances may affect anxiety as well. Many different hormones have an effect on brain chemistry and neurotransmitter production and balance, so if these hormones appear to be out of balance, anxiety may be the result.

Some examples of hormones affecting the brain include:

  • Adrenaline/Epinephrine Adrenaline is one of the most common causes of anxiety symptoms. Your body releases it when your fight or flight system is active, and it causes the increase in heart rate, muscle tension, and more. In some cases, long term stress and anxiety may damage your ability to control adrenaline, leading to further anxiety symptoms.
  • Thyroid Hormone Thyroid hormone appears to regulate the amount of serotonin, norepinephrine, and Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) produced and distributed to the brain, so problems with your thyroid may also increase your risk for developing anxiety.

Several hormones may cause anxiety, and a change in brain chemistry may increase the production of hormones that lead to further anxiety symptoms.

Panic Attacks and the Brain

Panic attacks are a particularly distressing form of anxiety, and these may be due to the health of the brain too. Researchers have found that those with panic attacks often have an overactive amygdala. While it's not clear what creates this over activity, the fact that that area of the brain appears to contribute to panic attacks indicates that some aspect of the brain is in control of the panic attack experience.

Other Links Between Anxiety and the Brain

Another interesting relationship between anxiety and the brain is that long term anxiety may damage the brain in a way that could cause further anxiety. Researchers have found that when you leave your anxiety disorder untreated, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate, hippocampus, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and orbitofrontal cortex all appear to decrease in size. The longer the anxiety goes untreated, the smaller and weaker they appear to be.

What's interesting is that not only do these changes affect anxiety symptoms – they also create anxious thoughts. Those with anxiety may feel their thoughts are completely natural, when in reality the brain contributes to that type of negative thinking.

Treating Anxiety When it Has a Brain Cause

Those that hear that their brains may be responsible for their anxiety often feel a bit hopeless, as though this means that their anxiety cannot be stopped or treated. Luckily, the brain is incredibly adaptive. It can respond to learning, and it can respond to experiences and mental abilities.

That's why although there may be parts of your brain that create anxiety due to size, hormone production, neurotransmitter receptivity, etc., you can change these by learning relaxation tools and coping mechanisms that allow you to control your anxiety overall.

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

Ask Doctor a Question

Question:

Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient

Answer:

You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

Ask Doctor a Question

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