About Anxiety

The Biochemistry of Anxiety

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated August 24, 2022

The Biochemistry of Anxiety

Anxiety may be a difficult disorder to live with, but it's also a fascinating one. Anxiety can be caused by life experiences, by the chemicals in your brain, or by both. Regardless of the cause of your anxiety, it is treatable.

The neurotransmitters in your brain are affected by anxiety. In this article, we'll give an introduction to the biochemistry of anxiety, and what that means for treatment.

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 experiences, emotions, and stress can actually change your neurotransmitters, just as neurotransmitters can affect your mood and anxiety. 

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. 

To give you an idea of how anxiety interacts with the brain, let's look at some of the body's chemicals and how they seem to contribute to anxiety disorders:

  • Serotonin Serotonin may be the most well-known 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 reduce 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 hyperthyroidism find an improvement in their anxiety almost instantly.
  • GABA The neurotransmitter GABA is known to be the regulatory center for anxiety. Research has shown a strong association between GABA levels and the development of mood disorders, indicating that GABA also has an effect on emotions. In fact, one of the primary types of anxiety medications - benzodiazepines - bind with GABA receptors and produce the anxiolytic effect. The drug effects on the GABA receptors provides some of the strongest evidence that GABA dysfunction underlies anxiety states. 
  • Epinephrine/Norepinephrine Norepinephrine is responsible for many of the symptoms of anxiety. These hormones and neurotransmitters are responsible for 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 become overactive, often as a result of regular stress.
  • Endorphins Endorphins themselves do not appear to be related to the creation of anxiety but are important to know about in relation to how that anxiety is relieved. Endorphins are mood and relaxation stabilizers. They're often related to "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 and cope with anxiety.
  • Dopamine The role of dopamine in anxiety is only recently getting explored. There is evidence that dopamine has a role in anxiety modulation in different areas of the brain. Some studies have also shown that those with social anxiety may have problems with dopamine receptors. There is evidence suggesting that improving dopamine levels could 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 indicating 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. While medication can be prescribed to address the vast majority of neurotransmitters, the majority of anxiety disorders can be improved through basic mental health treatments.

Questions? Comments?

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

– Anonymous patient


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.

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