Anxiety may be a difficult disorder to live with, but it's also a fascinating one. Anxiety can be caused by life experiences, and it can be caused by the chemicals in your brain, and it can be caused by both, and no matter what causes it, it can be treated the same way.
Even within your own biochemistry, there are different neurotransmitters that can cause and be affected by anxiety. In this article, we'll give an introduction to the biochemistry of anxiety, and what that means for treatment.
Curing Anxiety Without Medicine
Anxiety is an incredibly treatable disorder, provided you're ready and willing to make the necessary changes to your day to day life. Find out more about how you can treat anxiety without medications with my free 7 minute anxiety test.
Anxiety Affects Biochemistry and Vice Versa
When we talk about the biochemistry of anxiety, it can give the impression that your anxiety isn't under your control. That could not be further from the truth. Your life experience and your emotions can actually change your neurotransmitter levels, just as your neurotransmitter levels can affect your anxiety. Make sure you take my anxiety test to get a better idea of what this means.
In fact, studies have shown that even if you were born with low neurotransmitter levels, there is a great deal of evidence that effective coping strategies can increase those neurotransmitters even though the levels were created biologically. It's the same reason that those whose life experience caused anxiety can be treated with medications that affect neurotransmitter levels. The two combine and contribute to each other, so even exploring the biochemistry of anxiety shouldn't cause you to feel as though your anxiety is beyond your control.
The Basics of Anxiety Biochemistry
The biochemistry of anxiety is complex and vast. Studies have shown that nearly every type of neurotransmitter and hormone can play some role in anxiety, as can anything that reduces blood flow to the brain (like dehydration). Anxiety, in many ways, is simply your body's reaction to brain stress. When something causes any changes to your brain, experiencing anxiety is often the result.
But to give you a basic example of how anxiety works, let's look at some of the body's chemicals and how they seem to contribute to anxiety disorders:
- Serotonin Serotonin is the most well-known anxiety related neurotransmitter. Low levels of serotonin are linked to both anxiety and depression. Like most neurotransmitters, low or unbalanced serotonin levels can occur genetically/naturally, and can also be created by your emotions. Studies have shown that therapy and mental health techniques increase natural serotonin levels. Some medications specifically improve serotonin flow and find a profound reduction in anxiety.
- Thyroid Hormone Hyperthyroid, which is an overproduction of thyroid hormone, has been linked to the development of severe anxiety and panic attacks. Thyroid hormone may be the only hormone that isn't affected by mental health, but rather a condition known as hyperthyroidism. Generally those that treat hypothyroidism find an improvement in their anxiety almost instantly.
- GABA GABA has shown a strong association with the development of mood disorders, indicating that GABA appears to have an effect on emotions. In fact, one of the primary types of anxiety medications - benzodiazepines - bind with GABA receptors and produce the anxiolytic effect. Higher levels of GABA appear to have mood boosting qualities, and low levels of GABA may have excitatory properties that put you on edge.
- Epinephrine/Norepinephrine Norepinephrine is responsible for many of the symptoms of anxiety. They are the adrenaline and energy that is pumped through your body when you're stressed or anxious, and cause changes like rapid heartbeat, sweating, etc. In some cases these hormones can start becoming overactive, often as a result of regular stress.
- Endorphins Endorphins themselves do not appear to be related to the creation of anxiety, but how that anxiety is addressed. Endorphins are mood and relaxation stabilizers. They're often the cause of "addictions" to various coping mechanisms - for example, endorphins appear to be released when people eat food they like, so eating food may become someone's coping tool. Exercise is an example of a healthy way to release endorphins.
- Dopamine The role of dopamine in anxiety is only recently getting explored. But studies have shown that those with social anxiety seem to have problems with dopamine receptors. There is evidence that improving dopamine levels will reduce social anxiety, and possibly other anxiety disorders.
This is just a basic introduction to the biochemistry of anxiety. But the reality is that nearly every hormone and every neurotransmitter can potentially cause anxiety, simply because anxiety is often a warning sign that your brain gives you that something is wrong.
What To Do About Anxiety and Body Chemicals
There are a few hormones/neurotransmitters that would require some type of medical attention. Thyroid hormone is the best example, as this hormone needs to be regulated in order to prevent anxiety. But the vast majority of neurotransmitters can be improved through basic mental health treatments.
Make sure you take my free 7 minute anxiety test now. This test will take a look at your symptoms and use that information to successfully treat your anxiety.
Siegel, George J., et al. Biochemical Aspects of Anxiety. (1999).
Petty F. GABA and mood disorders: a brief review and hypothesis.J Affect Disord. 1995 Aug 18;34(4):275-81.
Brambilla P, Perez J, Barale F, Schettini G, Soares JC. GABAergic dysfunction in mood disorders.Mol Psychiatry. 2003 Aug;8(8):721-37, 715.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.