What’s Actually Happening In Your Brain When You Feel Anxious
You know the feeling: That tense sensation in your stomach, the heightened sense of awareness you have about everything going on around you, the slight fear or sense of dread — that’s anxiety. Before your body feels the effects however, your brain is already at work. The National Institute of Mental Health guide to anxiety disorders also offers this description of the neurological processes at work:
Several parts of the brain are key actors in the production of fear and anxiety. Using brain imaging technology and neurochemical techniques, scientists have discovered that the amygdala and the hippocampus play significant roles in most anxiety disorders.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that is believed to be a communications hub between the parts of the brain that process incoming sensory signals and the parts that interpret these signals. It can alert the rest of the brain that a threat is present and trigger a fear or anxiety response. The emotional memories stored in the central part of the amygdala may play a role in anxiety disorders involving very distinct fears, such as fears of dogs, spiders or flying.
The hippocampus is the part of the brain that encodes threatening events into memories. Studies have shown that the hippocampus appears to be smaller in some people who were victims of child abuse or who served in military combat. Research will determine what causes this reduction in size and what role it plays in the flashbacks, deficits in explicit memory and fragmented memories of the traumatic event that are common in PTSD.
The feeling of anxiety is part of your body’s stress response. Your fight or flight response is triggered, and your system is flooded with norepinephrine and cortisol. Both are designed to give you a boost to perception, reflexes and speed in dangerous situations. They increase your heart rate, get more blood to your muscles, get more air into your lungs and get you ready to deal with whatever threat is present. Your body turns its full attention to survival. Ideally, it all shuts down when the threat passes and your body goes back to normal.