We're Here to Help 720.891.4657

We're Here to Help   720.891.4657

How Anxiety and Depression Affect Brain Chemistry

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.

Anxiety and depression are common mental health disorders that can significantly affect the brain.

These conditions impact a person’s emotional well-being and alter the functioning and structure of the brain.

The intricate interplay between anxiety, depression, and the brain involves various neurotransmitters, neural circuits, and brain regions.

Chronic anxiety and depression can lead to long-term changes in the brain’s chemistry, connectivity, and overall functioning.

Understanding the effects of the conditions on the brain is crucial for developing effective treatments and interventions to improve mental health outcomes, especially if you live with a co-occurring substance use disorder as a byproduct of struggling with anxiety symptoms or depressive episodes.

Continue reading to learn more about what anxiety and depression do to the brain.

A Look Into the Neurobiology of Anxiety: How It Manifests

Anxiety is your mind and body’s reaction to stressful, unfamiliar, and dangerous situations. When you experience regular 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 are released 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 that 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 increasingly panicked. You may avoid friends and loved ones or specific events and locations, and you may be unable to sleep. If you’re living with an anxiety disorder, you may be overwhelmed and completely debilitated by the worry and fear you feel.

By delving into the neurobiological basis of anxiety, we gain valuable insights into the intricate mechanisms that drive this common mental health condition.

What Does Anxiety Do to the Brain Over Time?

According to the National Library of Medicine, a connection exists between sustained anxiety, the degeneration of the hippocampus, and the impairment of the prefrontal cortex.

But what does that all mean?

For starters, the intensified levels of distress can be highly 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.

In Comparison: The Neurobiology of Depression

Based on current research, the parts of the brain that play the most prominent roles in the neurobiology of depression are the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex.

Continue reading to understand their specific role in depressive episodes below.

The Hippocampus

Located near the brain’s center, this area stores memories and regulates the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is released when you experience stress, including during bouts of depression. When excess cortisol is sent to the brain because of a stressful event or chemical imbalance, it affects the ability to create new brain cells. Healthy brains will produce new brain cells in the hippocampus, but in a brain suffering from depression, high cortisol levels can slow down this production. This causes the current brain cells in the hippocampus to shrink, leading to memory issues.

The Amygdala

The amygdala is found near the base of the brain between the hypothalamus and the hippocampus and controls emotional responses. When you experience depression, this area enlarges and becomes increasingly active due to the exposure to excess cortisol from the hippocampus, leading to disrupted sleep and activities. It can also mean unbalanced amounts of other hormones and chemicals.

The Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is located at the front of the brain. It regulates decision-making, memory formation, and emotion regulation, which are stored in the hippocampus. Along with the hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex also seems to shrink with excess cortisol levels.

Research shows that because of these discoveries, cortisol levels play a crucial role in depression. In a healthy brain, cortisol levels are the highest in the morning and decrease as the day progresses. However, in people suffering from depression, cortisol levels stay heightened, making it difficult to function throughout the day.

Treating Anxiety, Depression, and the Brain

As damaging as anxiety and depression can be on the brain and body, there is a lot of hope for recovery.

Brain cells are resilient during active healing 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.

Balancing the levels of cortisol and other chemicals can help reverse the shrinking of areas of the brain, treat memory problems, and decrease the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Medication is typically prescribed for those living with these mental health conditions to help balance cortisol levels.

Psychotherapy is often paired with prescription medication, which can alter brain structure and help alleviate symptoms.

Brain health can also be improved through non-medical paths, such as

  • Healthy eating
    Healthy foods and regular activity stimulate the brain and fortify communication between brain cells.
  • Regular sleep patterns
    A restful night’s sleep helps to grow and repair brain cells.
  • Avoiding drugs and alcohol
    Drugs and alcohol can impair communication between brain cells, further impairing memory.

If medication and other solutions haven’t relieved your anxiety or depression, mental health treatment is available. The Raleigh House offers residential and outpatient treatment where you’ll learn more about your mental health disorder and discover ways to manage your symptoms.

Experience Expert Mental Health Treatment at The Raleigh House

When you’re going through anxiety or depression, you may feel alone and isolated, as though no one understands your feelings. But there are ways to break out of that hopelessness and find healing.

The Raleigh House is here to offer you the support and understanding you need while getting the help you deserve.

With over ten years of experience treating addiction and mental health disorders, we offer evidence-based depression treatment designed to help you regain a fulfilling lifestyle.

Our personalized treatment approach includes a variety of holistic therapies and evidence-based treatment to help you find a path to healing and healthy living.

Depression and anxiety don’t have to rule your life. There is hope at The Raleigh House.

Contact our admissions team today to learn more about our mental health treatment programs.

Call Now: 720-891-4657

Related Posts

How Music Can Lower Stress and Anxiety

Exercises for Depression and Anxiety

How Does Dopamine Affect the Brain?

Copyright © 2024 The Raleigh House LLC. All rights reserved. | Privacy Policy | HIPAA Notice of Privacy | Accessibility Statement | Sitemap

Have questions? We're here to help