5 Ways Anxiety Affects Your Brain That You May Not Realize
We’ve all experienced nerve-wracking moments where our heart falls to the pit of our stomach. Maybe these butterflies have occurred right before a public speech, or an important exam. It's the sudden (and in many ways fleeting) feeling of worry in one area or another.
However, there are times when this worry extends far beyond a fleeting or sudden feeling, and this is a concern that many of us face. Know that if you find that you’re excessively worrying about everything and anything - you may have anxiety. Anxiety is far more than just over the top fear and worries. It affects every area of the body, from your innermost cells to the powerhouse within your skull, the brain.
Let’s talk about a few ways you may not have realized your anxiety is affecting your brain, so you can better understand your body and your mind.
Before we talk about the ways anxiety can wreak havoc in your brain, we should get on the same page about what ‘anxiety’ is, and how it’s defined.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5), in order for a patient to be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder they must exhibit:
- Excessive worry (happening more often than not)
- Inability to control anxious thoughts
- Difficulty concentrating
- Muscle tension
- Sleep disturbance
While there are different forms of anxiety disorders, in order to keep it simple, we’ll be talking about generalized anxiety disorder - the most basic and common type of anxiety disorder in every population.
5 Ways Anxiety Affects Your Brain:
- Anxiety makes us overactive to perceived threats
- Anxiety weakens our brain connections
- Anxiety prevents the brain from storing new memories
- Anxiety disrupts our sleep cycle
- Anxiety fills our brain with stress hormones
Anxiety Makes Us Overactive To Perceived Threats
When anxiety is left untreated in the brain, the amygdala grows larger. This almond-shaped spot in the brain is small but mighty.
The amygdala, located within the ‘mood and emotion’ region, sends distress signals to other parts of the brain when a threat is sensed. In the brains of anxious people, the amygdala is large and hyperactive, sending many false alarms throughout the day.
This keeps someone suffering from anxiety in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’ - always feeling the need to keep one eye out, just in case. As you can imagine, this can leave an anxious person always exhausted - mentally and physically and comes with it a host of ailments.
Anxiety Weakens Our Brain Connections
We’ve talked about how anxiety affects the amygdala, the center for danger, but did you know anxiety weakens the connections within the rest of the brain as well? The connection between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex is damaged in a person with untreated anxiety.
This becomes a major problem, due to the fact that the prefrontal cortex is responsible for wise, rational decision-making. So, when the amygdala sends out an inappropriate response, your prefrontal cortex should kick in and allow you to properly assess the threat. When this connection is weakened, irrational thoughts and behavior occur.
Anxiety Prevents the Brain From Storing New Memories
Since a person suffering from unmanaged anxiety often lives in a state of ‘fight or flight’ their body is under constant stress.
Stress shrinks the area of the brain responsible for new memory storage - the hippocampus. This can make both long and short-term memories challenging to retain, and often leads to ‘blind spots" in people’s daily life. As if it can’t get worse, anxiety actually tricks the hippocampus into believing that anxiety-related memories are safe to store, thus causing the memories that are held onto, primarily negative ones.
Anxiety Disrupts Our Sleep Cycle
It’s been researched time and time again, that sleep is crucial for overall wellness. Sleep is the only time your body gets to restore and repair itself. When sleep is disrupted, a host of physical, emotional, and mental problems can occur. Mental hyperarousal can occur in people with anxiety, prohibiting their brains from ‘turning off’ at night. Chronic, high levels of stress hormones may make it impossible to relax, in turn causing even more anxiety. Lack of sleep is known to cause emotional dysregulation, weakened immune system, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, and more.
Anxiety Fills Our Brain With Stress Hormones
Adrenaline and cortisol - are two hormones produced in the brain that have enabled humans for thousands of years to fight off danger properly. These two hormones are also released in the brain when our body feels anxious. Anxiety sends a message to our body (specifically triggering the Amygdala) that there is a (false) threat, and we need to be ready for the scary event about to take place. When our body receives this message, our brains flood our system with both adrenaline and cortisol, in turn making us even more stressed! This constant state of stress hormones can be what takes mild anxiety and turns it into severe over time.
Overcoming Anxiety With Faith
Now that you know what anxiety does, let's talk about how to overcome it. If you find yourself in a constant state of fear and worry, understand that you’re far from alone. God deeply desires to free his sons and daughters from stress and anxiety. 2 Timothy 1:7 However, if you need medication or therapy in order to get your anxiety under control, rest assured you are not broken. Assistance and guidance from a mental health professional by no means make you an ‘unfaithful Christian’. The Lord has provided these therapeutic techniques to help us through the healing process.
Overall, the best remedy to overcome anxiety requires three things:
1. Develop an active prayer life.
Start addressing and processing your fears with Him. 1 Peter 5:7 God desires a deep connection with you so that he can heal you from the fear that is causing your anxiety (i.e. the root). Philippians 4: 6-7 Developing a consistent prayer life in which you bring your fears to God will help to start the process of communicating with Jesus on a daily basis.
2. Inventory your life.
What you watch, eat, listen to and where you go have a profound impact on your anxiety and stress levels. Take an inventory of your home and your life. What do you eat? Where do you go? What do you watch and listen to? Are these things edifying? Do they lift you higher to God or do they cause you to worry and stress? Philippians 4:8
3. Develop healthy, Christian fellowship and Bonds.
We need healthy fellowship with other like-minded Christians. A healthy, active church is also a great way to foster a healthy relationship with other like-minded Christians. God does not desire for us to dwell alone. Genesis 2:18 People thrive in a positive, healthy spiritual atmosphere. Hebrews 10:25 Who influences you? Do your friends influence you to be inward or outward focused? What and who do you talk about? Does it help you to think about yourself or others? If you've had a negative experience, don't give up. God has a place for you to thrive and build relationships and life with others.
Until Next Time...
Denetra Gary, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker