People who struggle with an anxiety disorder often refer to it as an overwhelming sense of dread, doom, and despair. Yet, anxiety is a common aspect of many people’s day-to-day lives and takes on many different forms. So, what exactly causes anxiety in the brain?
Long term effects of anxiety on the mind as well as on the body can have devastating consequences. More particularly, it can lead to other unforeseen health conditions.
By identifying the causes of anxiety, we can have a better understanding of how to prevent it.
In this article, we’re going to track and follow anxiety – it’s causes, its impact on the body, the many forms it appears in, and how to quell it. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.
What is Anxiety?
Before we dive into the causes of anxiety, it’s important to first understand what anxiety is.
Admittedly, anxiety is different for each and every one of us. Although, in an overarching sense, anxiety is a consistent drum of paranoia, the direct effects of it will vary from person-to-person.
Anxiety can be temporary – a short sense of dread many of us feel for a brief period of time. However, if anxiety continues – if it emerges into a pattern – then it starts developing into a disorder.
According to MedlinePlus, an anxiety disorder is defined as, “a feeling of fear, dread, and uneasiness. It might cause you to sweat, feel restless and tense, and have a rapid heartbeat.” ¹
A psychiatrist can evaluate whether or not you have an anxiety disorder based on symptoms you feel on a daily basis. It’s important to identify these symptoms as soon as possible as they can allude to larger health conditions.
What are the Types of Anxiety?
When a pattern of anxiety attacks and its symptoms emerge, mental health professionals will seek out a specific type of anxiety disorder. The kind of anxiety disorders will usually break down in the following categories: ²
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – marked by excessive anxiety for no logical reason. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that GAD affects about 6.8 million American adults per year.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – a type of anxiety in which people have disorderly, continuous thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions).
- Panic Disorder – a type of anxiety that causes “sudden feelings of terror when there is no real danger,” better known as panic attacks. ³
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – when someone experiences a mental and emotional stress due to a severe psychological shock (a traumatic experience).
- Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) – fear of social situations involving large crowds or social interactions with other people. Often comes from fear of being judged or humiliated by others. ⁴
You may only struggle with one of the above types of anxiety. However, in some cases, people struggle with more than one.
Symptoms and Effects of Anxiety
Unlike flu or cold symptoms, the symptoms of anxiety cannot be narrowed down definitively. Furthermore, not everyone will experience the same symptoms.
Here are a list of the most common symptoms for an anxiety disorder: ⁵
- Changes in mood (i.e. mood swings)
- Difficulty breathing / hyperventilation
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
- Increase in heart rate
- Increase or re-emergence of depression and related symptoms
- Loss of libido (can cause loss in sexual arousal)
- Panic attacks
- Sleep problems
Keep in mind, many of these symptoms are common among the general population. When these symptoms emerge over the course of a long period of time and repeat themselves is when mental health professionals will diagnose anxiety.
What Causes Anxiety in the Brain?
With an understanding of anxiety and its symptoms, we come to the question, “What causes anxiety in the brain?” There are two main areas of the brain that play a significant role in how anxiety is produced – the amygdala and the hippocampus. ⁶
The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep within the brain whose main responsibility is acting as a communications center for the brain and incoming sensory signals. Through these signals, the amygdala can alert other areas of the brain when fear should be triggered (usually, in case when a threat is present).
In turn, this creates emotional memories that are deposited in the central part of the amygdala. It’s believed these memories play a significant role in anxiety disorders.
For example, if you had a moment in your childhood where a dog chased you, your brain might automatically correlate dogs with fear. Simply because the memory of fear is stored within your amygdala.
Once your brain has come into contact with a threat – either actual or perceived – a ton of chemicals are released. These chemicals change the way we feel in a number of ways, from getting our hearts pumping to causing more oxygen to circulate in the body.
In fact, its this release of chemicals that often causes the many symptoms associated with anxiety.
Long-Term Effects of Anxiety on the Brain
While anxious moments can be necessary for survival, an overabundance of them can cause long-term damage to our brains and bodies.
It’s understood that anxiety often leads to stress. And chronic stress has been associated with the following health conditions: ⁷
- Heart disease
- Weakened immune system
- Weight gain
However, beyond what happens to our bodies, new research has found that prolonged stress and anxiety can actually damage to the hippocampus. This damage can lead to a number of consequences, such as an increased risk of depression and dementia. ⁸
Luckily, research shows that many of these negative effects can be reversed to some degree. Our brains are very similar to plastic in the sense that they hold the ability to change. Due to this, our brains are also capable of regrowth and regeneration.
Other Impacts on the Brain and Body
Anxiety can have other profound effects on our brains and bodies that can last from mere minutes to longer periods of time. Beyond an anxiety attack in and of itself, anxiety can do critical damage to both our psychology and our health in the long-term.
To start, anxiety can stifle the confidence you hold within yourself, the world, and your ability to tackle problems. The degradation of self-competence can lead to issues that go beyond an anxiety attack itself, such as difficulty with communication or, furthermore, problems within a relationship or friendship. ⁹
With a lack of confidence, it’s safe to say the world around us feels more dangerous than it actually is. Day-to-day functions suddenly become a nightmare and you may find it easier to close yourself off from the outside world.
Sheltering from difficulties may be easy in the short-term, but in the long-term could lead to further mental health complications. Most notably, depression and suicidal ideation. ¹⁰
How to Treat Anxiety
When it comes to treating anxiety, there is good news and bad news. The good news is there are a number of ways to ease anxiety. The bad news is there is no way to completely treat anxiety so that it never comes back.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that anxiety is a natural response our brains have to threat. An anxiety disorder is when that response kicks in during moments when no threat is present.
The best way to ease an anxiety disorder is by using psychological resources, such as psychotherapies. These can appear in various approaches, from immersion therapy to talk therapy. ¹¹
Most often, when a medical professional diagnoses you with an anxiety disorder, you’ll also receive medication that can help alongside psychotherapies. However, we at Bedlamite Publications warn that these medications can be addictive and should only be taken as a medical professional recommends.
As we’ve discussed, anxiety is a problematic disorder that can have negative long-term effects on the brain and body. For this reason, treatment is vital in helping you overcome an anxiety disorder and promote better health.
While an anxiety disorder can be life-altering, it’s important to remember that you are not alone in your battle. There are millions of others out there who are also struggling to overcome this natural phenomenon.
Still have questions about what causes anxiety in the brain?
We invite you to ask them in the comment’s section below. If you have any further information to share – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.
¹ MedlinePlus: Anxiety
² U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS): What are the five major types of anxiety disorders?
³ MedlinePlus: Panic Disorder
⁴ National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Social Anxiety Disorder: More Than Just Shyness
⁵ National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Anxiety Disorders
⁶ The Psychiatric clinics of North America (HHS Public Access): The Neurobiology of Anxiety Disorders: Brain Imaging, Genetics, and Psychoneuroendocrinology
⁷ Future Science OA (Future Science Group): The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain-body communication
⁹ National Health Service (NHS) (UK): Raising low self-esteem
¹⁰ ProHealth Care: Depression associated with loneliness and isolation should not go untreated
¹¹ Pharmacy and Therapeutics (MediMedia, USA): Current Diagnosis and Treatment of Anxiety Disorders