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The Neurobiology of Anxiety: What Anxiety Does to the Brain

A woman with an anxiety disorder goes through an anxiety attack on the couch.
While small amounts of stress are perfectly normal, experiencing anxiety in excess can negatively affect your mental health and overall wellbeing.

If you’ve ever been asked to give a speech in front of a large group of people or called into your boss’ office unexpectedly, you’ve likely felt some degree of stress or anxiety. When you experience anxiety, those feelings can trigger an uncomfortable mental and physical response. While small amounts of stress are perfectly normal, experiencing anxiety in excess can negatively affect your mental health and overall wellbeing.

If you’re struggling with an anxiety disorder, every day can feel like a challenge to get through. In this blog, we’re going to explore why this is the case, what anxiety does to the brain and treatment that’s available.

Anxiety and the Brain: How it Manifests

Anxiety is your mind and body’s reaction to stressful, unfamiliar and even dangerous situations. When you experience normal feelings of anxiety or fear, your body receives signals from the brain to be ready for fight or flight mode.

During this state, the stress hormones norepinephrine and cortisol release throughout the body, increasing your perception, reflex speed, heart rate and respiration, while also slowing down your digestive system. When the situation that caused your stress passes, your parasympathetic nervous system calms down the body, so you can rest and recover.

However, if you suffer from an anxiety disorder, your parasympathetic nervous system may not kick in and you may be unable to calm down. Your thoughts continue to race and you feel an increasing sense of panic. You may avoid friends and loved ones or specific events and locations, and you may find yourself unable to sleep. If you’re living with an anxiety disorder, you may be overwhelmed and completely debilitated by the level of worry and fear you feel.

What Does Anxiety Do to the Brain Over Time?

Research has discovered a connection between sustained anxiety, the degeneration of the hippocampus and the impairment of the prefrontal cortex. What does that all mean? For starters, it means that the intensified levels of distress can be extremely toxic to the brain to the point where it may alter its composition.

For individuals with anxiety disorders, brain scans have shown that the amygdala — which processes fear — increases in size while the hippocampus decreases, impairing long-term memory. The damage to your brain caused by chronic anxiety may also be connected to a heightened risk for depression and dementia.

Unfortunately, these changes in the brain can also impact how anxiety affects different areas of the body. Chronic anxiety and stress can lead to or worsen disorders like diabetes, insomnia, hypertension and digestive issues.

Treating Anxiety and the Brain

As damaging as anxiety can be on the brain and body, there is a lot of hope for recovery. For example, brain cells are resilient and can make new connections quickly. This means your brain can learn to generate new ways to respond to stressful situations rather than relying on past harmful patterns.

Fortunately, there are evidence-based ways you can promote this type of healing and enhance your brain health. For starters, exercise offers established benefits in fighting chronic stress. It can help attack inflammation, increase neurogenesis — which is the production of new brain cells — and improve your overall mood.

Activities like ongoing education and meditation and mindfulness can foster increased brain health, as well. Continued education creates cognitive reserve, which offers some defense for your brain when you experience negative life events. On the other hand, practicing mindfulness can help you get ahead of stressful situations before they trigger anxiety.

Medication is another key to successfully treating anxiety disorders. It can help reduce the symptoms of anxiety, including fear, worry and panic attacks. While not a cure, medication can help manage your symptoms and give you relief.

There are a variety of different medications that treat anxiety, from benzodiazepines to beta-blockers to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and each treatment works differently for everyone. It’s important to speak with your healthcare provider to determine the right medication for your specific anxiety disorder.

Find Hope for Recovery from Anxiety Disorders at The Raleigh House

With 40 million adults living with anxiety, anxiety disorders are one of the most common types of mental illnesses in the United States. While anxiety can feel overwhelming and isolating, you’re not alone. And, there is hope for recovery.

At The Raleigh House, we unify science, innovation and spirit to support those seeking help in starting a new life. Our combination of evidence-based treatments and holistic therapies can help you take control of your anxiety and regain the life you want. Our expert mental health team is here and waiting to help you heal. Contact our admissions team today to find out how The Raleigh House can help you recover from anxiety.

Call Now: 720-891-4657

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