We all need anxiety. It keeps us safe. But when anxiety turns into an anxiety disorder, it can be debilitating in more ways than one. It may negatively impact your health, work-life, relationships, and sense of self-worth.
With so much affected by an anxiety disorder, it’s common to question whether the condition has long-term influences, particularly on your brain.
Below, we’ll look at what anxiety is, how it influences your brain, and what you can do about it.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a normal reaction to stressful situations. It’s integral to our safety, as it helps detect danger in our surroundings. Effectively, it’s your body’s fire alarm - it lets you know when there’s a threat, so you can either fight back, flee the situation, or freeze and hope the threat dissipates.
This level of anxiety is manageable and, in fact, highly beneficial. However, nowadays, the threats to our safety tend to be pretty limited. Instead, our threats are often psychological - they’re predictions of potential future threats. These are called perceived (or imagined) threats.
The thing about perceived threats is that your body could be in a highly stressful state while you’re in complete safety. And it’s all because you’re imagining the danger that could happen rather than responding to a threat that is happening.
Anxiety is considered an anxiety disorder when feelings of worry and unease are pervasive and intense; these affect roughly 20% of the population. Anxiety disorders have a physical impact, elevating your heart rate and blood pressure and increasing the risk of developing heart disease.
They can also trigger insomnia and cause difficulties in your professional life and relationships. But the question is: can it change you psychologically? Before we look into this, let’s discuss what “brain rewiring” actually means.
What is Brain Rewiring?
Brain rewiring, also called neuroplasticity, is the brain’s ability to adapt itself based on how we live our lives. Donald Hebb, a Canadian psychologist, aptly described brain rewiring:
“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
- Donald Hebb
Here, Hebb describes how neural pathways are formed in the brain and reinforced through repetition.
Neurons are the information messengers in your brain; they use electrical and chemical signals to transfer information between the brain regions and out to the nervous system.
When you see a threatening stimulus, specific neurons will fire. Then, other neurons will fire based on your response. If you stay safe after your response, your brain will assume it’s because of your action, so the neural pathway between the stimulus and your response will be strengthened.
When you have repeatedly been exposed to this threat and responded with the same action, the neural pathway will be so strong that your response will almost be automatic.
The brain does this to learn, grow, and heal based on the environments you’re typically exposed to. The way your brain is wired can significantly impact your success at performing everyday and more challenging tasks. Therefore, if an anxiety disorder causes brain rewiring, it’s worth knowing.
Does Anxiety Rewire Your Brain?
So, does anxiety rewire your brain? The simple answer is yes, it does. And it does this through a process called the Anxiety Cycle. Let’s explore this next.
The Anxiety Cycle
Every day, we’re exposed to different situations. Each time, we have to assess whether it’s safe or dangerous. Imagine you see a spider - some people would perceive this as a threat. In contrast, other people wouldn’t be bothered by the spider, believing they were safe.
But imagine for a second that you were one of the people who view the spider as a threat. In this case, exposure to a spider would invoke feelings of worry and anxiety, setting off your stress response. You may think, “spiders are dangerous, so I am in danger.”
The uncomfortable, anxious feelings you are experiencing at that moment may make you assume that this thought is accurate. So, you act accordingly - you run away or attack the spider. When nothing bad happens to you, you believe that this is a result of your action.
You’ll experience a wave of relief and may think to yourself, “Phew! I kept myself safe from the spider that threatened my survival.” This sensation effectively rewards your brain for carrying out the “solution,” conditioning it to perform the same action again in the future.
So, in subsequent situations when you’re exposed to a spider, your brain will elevate your anxiety levels to “keep you safe.” Repeated occurrences will strengthen the neural pathway that connects seeing a spider to running away or attacking it. Eventually, this response will become almost automatic.
The Anxiety Cycle and Anxiety Disorder
When you have an anxiety disorder, you constantly see situations and stimuli as threatening. So, you take actions to prevent the “threat” from jeopardizing your safety.
And as a result, you get stuck in the Anxiety Cycle, which makes you more likely to assume these situations are unsafe in the future.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are steps you can take to undo the psychological effects of anxiety.
Can You Undo the Psychological Effects of Anxiety?
When attempting to undo the rewiring caused by anxiety, you need to focus on the amygdala. This area of your brain is a part of the Limbic System, which is heavily involved in the stress response system.
Two of the best ways to inhibit amygdala function and shut the stress response down are deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. Let’s explore each in turn.
Yes, you read that right. Even an activity as simple as deep breathing can help to retrain your brain. Deep breathing increases the amount of oxygen entering your body and brain.
This helps calm down your sympathetic nervous system, an integral part of the stress response system. It also regulates your amygdala and limbic system.
Deep breathing is also a great technique to relieve your anxious thoughts and feelings, so it’s beneficial on multiple levels.
One deep breathing exercise that’s particularly helpful for anxiety and relaxing the nervous system is the 4-7-8 breathing method. It’s recommended that this exercise be done while seated with a straight back. However, once you get used to the exercise, you can do it lying down.
Here are the steps:
- Lift your tongue so that it’s pressed against the roof of your mouth.
- Exhale through your mouth, breathing out all of the air from your lungs. And while doing so, sigh or make a whooshing sound.
- Then, close your mouth and breathe in air through your nose for 4 seconds.
- Hold your in-breath for 7 seconds.
- Open your mouth again, and exhale through your mouth. Do this while sighing or making a whooshing sound to a count of 8.
You can repeat this multiple times until you feel more regulated and relaxed.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Anxiety causes tension in your muscles which can cause pain in these areas over time. Particular areas of stress may be your neck, shoulders, or jaw.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a calming technique where you tense and then relax individual muscle groups. This helps relieve some of the tension that has built up as a result of your anxiety, making you feel more relaxed and at peace physically and mentally.
The first step is to tense your muscles. Starting at your toes, pick out a group of muscles (such as your feet) and tense them. Maintain the tension for up to 10 seconds, then release. While releasing the tension, imagine the stress and anxiety exiting your body.
Try to increase the tension on inhalation and release in an exhalation. Through this, you’ll get the sense of something leaving your body. Either you can imagine the stress exiting directly from the muscle or out of your body as breath.
The second step is to relax for 10 - 20 seconds. Take a 10 - 20 second rest between muscle groups, as this will remind you to slow down, further enhancing that sense of calm. Continue to tense and relax your muscles up to your head before bringing yourself back to the world.
The Bottom Line
While we all get anxious, some experience this in extreme amounts. This pervasive form of anxiety, known as anxiety disorder, may pose numerous problems for your health and wellbeing.
And it doesn’t stop there - the anxious cycle can rewire your brain, causing a load of changes to how your brain functions.
But the good news is that your brain doesn’t have to stay anxious forever. Our brains are malleable; they can be retrained - you can do this through deep breathing techniques and progressive muscle relaxation.