Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults (18.1% in the nation) aged 18 and older.1
If you’re one of these people, you may understand how anxiety can affect your physical health. However, not everyone knows that anxiety disorders can specifically impact brain function as well. Anxiety can promote hyperactivity in certain areas of your brain that respond to threat. These disorders can also hinder certain areas of the brain that manage stress and fear. Our nationwide drug treatment facility shares how anxiety affects the brain and how we can help people struggling with anxiety disorders.
Anxiety is the body’s natural response to stress and unfamiliar situations. This response is rooted in feelings of extreme fear, worry, or apprehension. While occasional anxiety is pretty normal, a formal anxiety disorder can debilitate a person to the point where they can’t carry out basic tasks, like grocery shopping, because anxiety often manifests itself into an intense and excessive feeling of fear and worry. In addition, when a person feels anxious, their brain releases an influx of hormones and signals indicating that danger is near, which can transform into various symptoms that can be uncomfortable and debilitating.
Different types of anxiety include:
The effects anxiety has on the brain can progressively worsen for individuals who do not receive mental health care. Banyan Treatment Centers recommends our mental health treatment in Florida for individuals battling anxiety. Our licensed therapists and medical personnel are dedicated to providing patients with safe and effective mental health treatment that teaches them how to properly cope with their symptoms.
The effects of anxiety on the brain are linked to the efficacy of a person’s parasympathetic nervous system and their idea of danger and threat. Below is more about anxiety and how it affects the brain.
The link between anxiety and brain function involves the sympathetic nervous system. This system controls the body’s rapid and involuntary responses to dangerous or stressful situations. The brain’s attempt to fight off whatever makes you anxious causes a flood of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol in the central nervous system, increasing the body’s alertness, heart rate, reflexes, respiration, and blood flow into the muscles. This reaction is also commonly known as “fight or flight.” Once this feeling passes, the parasympathetic nervous system undoes the work of the sympathetic system by decreasing respiration and heart rate and promoting relaxation.
However, an anxious brain may struggle to relax once the perceived danger is gone and may continue to activate the release of stress hormones until it’s overwhelmed. The baseline level of a person’s anxiety can increase until they hit a point where they can no longer think rationally. If you have anxiety, it’s better to receive treatment for it sooner rather than later.
Research on how anxiety affects the brain shows that the amygdala and hippocampus are two areas of the brain that suffer a direct blow from anxiety. The amygdala is an almond-shaped mass of gray matter in the brain involved with expressing emotions. Commonly thought of as a working part of a larger neural system, the amygdala is responsible for responses to fearful and threatening stimuli. Understandably, this is the area of the brain that plays a role in our emotions, especially in fear and anger. In addition, it's been found that persistent anxiety can cause the amygdala to grow, intensifying the body’s response to threatening or scary situations.
Conversely, anxiety can cause the hippocampus to shrink. The hippocampus is an area of the brain that plays a major role in learning and memory. It’s one of the most affected areas of the brain in individuals with psychological disorders like anxiety. The hippocampus connects to the amygdala, and together they control emotional memory recalling and regulation. Damage to the hippocampus can make it difficult for a person to remember things and form new memories. This area of the brain also contextualizes fear by linking fearful memories to places where they happened, explaining why individuals with anxiety disorders may avoid certain places.
Anxiety can also weaken the connection between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex of the brain, making it difficult for the prefrontal cortex to send a logical response to danger to the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for helping people process information, come up with informed decisions, and solve problems. Anxious brains tend to suffer from a weakened connection between their prefrontal cortex and amygdala, making them sensitive to dangers and difficult for them to develop rational responses.
Anxiety can affect the efficacy of the hippocampus, debilitating a person’s ability to remember things and form new memories. The hippocampus of someone with anxiety holds on to memories related to stress and fear. Unfortunately, many of the lost memories are good ones. The ones that are “saved” are connected to fear, making it difficult for a person with an anxiety disorder to hold onto good memories and create new ones, contributing to other disorders like depression.
Many studies on anxiety and the brain have also linked mental illness and substance abuse. Sadly, many people with mental disorders turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the adverse symptoms of their conditions. Unfortunately, rather than helping, substance abuse tends to open a doorway to more problems like addiction.