The anxious brain

The anxious brain

The whole body is involved in anxiety responses, but there are two parts of the brain that are especially important:

1.     The feeling part of the brain, known as the limbic system. And within the feeling brain, the amygdala which is the brain’s emotional response and memory system. And,

2.     The thinking part of the brain, known as the frontal lobe, which anticipates and interprets situations, decides on the preferred response and plans what to do.

Anxiety episodes may start either in the feeling brain or the thinking brain, but wherever they start, the other part will eventually become activated and involved.

Imagine you are out walking and suddenly realize you’re about to step on something that looks like a snake. At that moment, the amygdala alarm system will be triggered. It recognizes a potential danger, triggers a stress response, and readies the body for fight, flight, or freeze. In fight-or-flight, adrenaline and cortisol are released. Muscles tense up, breathing and heart rate accelerate, blood pressure goes up, oxygen and glucose are delivered to the muscles, alertness is heightened, and more.

The amygdala is a lifesaver. Before you’ve had time to think about what to do, your body jumps away from the snake-like thing. The feeling brain takes control without asking the thinking brain for approval.

Freeze is a “play dead” response, where acetylcholine is released, and opposite bodily responses are triggered.

In people with anxiety disorders, the amygdala may be hypersensitive, misinterpret and overreact to triggers. This leads to false alarms and intense fear responses that are no longer life savers but rather life disrupters. The amygdala is triggered by sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations that aren’t real dangers.

The amygdala activates the slower thinking brain, which helps it interpret and assess the danger and determine whether to continue or stop the stress response.

Anxiety episodes starting in the thinking brain are different. Imagine a person sitting at home planning a walk. As he creatively imagines his walk, he imagines he might step on a snake, that it will bite him, and that he’ll die all alone with no one to help him. Even though this scenario only plays out in his mind, the distressing thoughts may trigger the amygdala and cause an anxiety episode with emotional and physical symptoms. In the end, he may decide not to go for that walk.

These two scenarios illustrate the “feeling brain pathway” and the “thinking brain pathway” of anxiety episodes.

These anxiety pathways are made up of millions of nerve cells that communicate by chemicals called neurotransmitters in billions of nerve connections called synapses. Neurotransmitters such as:

·      Serotonin

·      Noradrenaline

·      Dopamine

·      GABA

·      And others are involved in anxiety responses.

We say that “nerve cells that fire together wire together”. The more these pathways have been triggered throughout life, especially during childhood, the more sensitive they may become to activation and the more prone the person may be to anxiety episodes.

In the next videos, we will explore how we can train and treat the brain and body so we may manage anxiety and live better. is a project of Adventist Health Ministries.

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