How Anxiety Affects The Brain: What You Need To Know

Published on March 22, 2019

According to the National Institute of Mental Health or NIMH statistical data, 5.7% of adults in the United States have experienced generalized anxiety disorder at some point. Anxiety refers to an intrinsic fear or apprehension which is usually of unknown cause, and often related to stress.


If you feel anxious most of the time, you’re probably worried that your anxiety will result to a more serious mental condition. It’s about time to know how anxiety affects your brain. By doing so, you’ll better understand yourself and take appropriate actions as needed.


First: Anxiety Starts as a Normal Human Response


Biologically, anxiety aims to put you in a state of alertness or sense of urgency. It’s part of the fight-or-flight response of the body or the immediate natural reaction to a perceived threat. When the body is under stress, the adrenal glands release epinephrine or adrenaline, and norepinephrine or noradrenaline, which are known as the fight-or-flight hormones.


Here’s how epinephrine and norepinephrine work in the human brain:


  • In response to the increased heart rate and blood pressure caused by epinephrine and norepinephrine, the hypothalamus is responsible for releasing the corticotropin-releasing factor or CRF into your pituitary gland, and in turn activates the adrenal cortex or adrenal-cortical system (a gland found on top of the kidneys).
  • The pituitary gland is a major endocrine gland that secretes the hormone adrenocorticotropic hormone or  ACTH.
  • The ACTH moves into the bloodstream until it reaches the adrenal cortex,  thus activating the release of about thirty different hormones to prepare your body to deal with a potential threat.


Second: Your Body and Mind Perceives Increasing Anxiety


You probably think that anxiety and stress are the same thing. Stress and anxiety are interrelated. Stress can be caused by family issues, work or career failure, relationship conflicts, or poor performance in school. However, they are different in terms of source, effects, and treatment.


Here are the effects of anxiety and its difference from stress, putting your body and mind on a defensive state:

  • While anxiety is a great alert mechanism when you’re facing an impending threat or unpleasant experience, living through the physical and psychological effects of anxiety daily may cause chronic stress.
  • Anxiety arises as a result of stress that has manifested in other ways. There are many types of stressors that make a person sad,  worried, angry, or anxious.
  • Anxiety is a feeling of fear, apprehension, and dread, and you might not know what causes your anxiety. In some cases, anxiety manifests on its own, without a known cause or any real “trigger.”
  • Anxiety is considered an internal response while stress is usually caused by external factors. That’s why anxiety is more difficult to manage.


Third: Anxiety Puts Your Body and Mind on a Defensive State


You have probably experienced tremors and increased perspiration due to stress. While anxiety refers to fear that puts you in a state of alertness, anxiety becomes stressful when it is consistent. An extremely heightened level of anxiety can put you in trouble.


The sudden influx of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and other hormones causes chemical changes in the body, including:


  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Pupil dilatation taking in as much light as possible
  • Constriction of veins to send more blood to your major muscle groups (causing a “chill” associated with fear and less blood on the skin)
  • Increased blood-glucose level
  • Tensed muscles as energized by glucose and adrenaline (causing goosebumps)
  • Increased oxygen into the lungs due to smooth muscle relaxation
  • Shut down of digestive and immune responses to increase energy for emergency functions
  • Trouble focusing on minor tasks because the brain is focused on the big picture to determine the source of worry or threat


Fourth: Anxiety Causes Brain or Neurochemical Changes


The key players in producing fear and anxiety are the hippocampus and amygdala using neurochemical techniques and brain imaging technology. The amygdala is a structure found deep in the brain, which is considered as the communications hub for processing incoming sensory signals and interpretation.


Here are the facts about amygdala and hippocampus:


  • The amygdala alerts the rest of the brain, triggering an anxious response or fear.
  • The amygdala stores emotional memories in the central part, which plays a vital role in developing anxiety disorders.
  • Anxiety disorders involve very distinct fears, like the fear of heights, dogs, flying, or other inanimate or animate objects.
  • The hippocampus encodes threatening events and situations into your memory. The hippocampus of some victims of child abuse, PTSD, and those who went to military combat appears to be smaller.    



With the information above, you’re now more abreast with the effects of anxiety in the brain. Of course, being knowledgeable about the scientific explanation of your condition is always a good step to assess yourself, but getting an expert’s advice, such as TG Psychology Penrith, Australia, is also crucial to seek proper treatment or intervention.

Category(s):Social Anxiety / Phobia

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