For many individuals experiencing symptoms of anxiety, it can be helpful to provide some explanation of the parts of the brain that play a role in anxious responses. Many individuals voice frustration about their anxiety experience, stating “Why do I even react like this?” or “I can’t make it stop.”
Through an understanding of the mechanisms of the brain that are involved in anxious reactions, it can support engagement in using tools and techniques to help change these reactions and reduce feelings of anxiety.
‘Fear Center’ of your Brain
Scientists have found that one of the main players in your brain when anxious is your Amygdala. This tiny part of your brain is considered by some as the “fear center” of the brain that is responsible for how humans respond when feeling fear and subsequently anxiety. Studies have found that reactivity in the Amygdala was positively correlated with anticipatory anxiety (Foster, Novick, Scholl, and Watt, 2012).
Additionally, MRI scans have also shown that “individuals with Generalized Anxiety Disorder exhibited over-engagement of the Amygdala and frontal region during viewing of negative images” (Fitzgerald, Phan, Kennedy, Shankman, Langenecker, and Klumpp, 2017). The amygdala is the part of the brain that triggers the well-known “Fight or Flight” response in reaction to perceptions of danger and is thus a large player in the process of changing responses to anxiety when triggered.
In the case of anxiety disorders, the overactivity of the amygdala plays a role in experiencing physiological responses, such as shortness of breath, heart racing, or nausea, in response to feelings of excessive worry or panic in situations regardless of actual threat to safety. Unfortunately, the Amygdala is not able to distinguish between an actual threat – a car speeding toward you – and a perceived threat – an upcoming important presentation at work.
Stress affects the Cortex
One of the other parts of the brain contributing to anxiety reactions is the Cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for planning, decision making, predicting consequences, and moderating social behavior. In some ways, this is the “thinking” part of the brain that helps humans to evaluate cost/benefits of decisions, recognize the best next steps to take, and evaluate choices in terms of reasoning and morals.
Research has shown that individuals who had experienced chronic or acute stress have reduced ability for behavioral flexibility associated with the Prefrontal Cortex. Research has also shown that anxious individuals favor negative interpretations of neutral or ambiguous stimuli (Park & Mohaddam, 2017). Due to these changes in the brain’s ability to process experiences and responses accurately through the Cortex, individuals with anxiety disorders experience symptoms such as difficulty concentrating, racing thoughts, and overanalyzing.
Research showed that anxiety is associated with increased expectation of negative outcomes in decision-making involving risk or ambiguity (Park & Mohaddam, 2017). For individuals with anxiety disorders, this may be experienced through excessive worry thoughts or “always thinking of worst-case scenario.”
Deep breathing and mindfulness
Thankfully, there are tools and skills that can be learned to help change reactions to triggers and reduce the severity of anxious responses. These tools can support experiential learning that can help to change brain responses to stress, anxiety, and fear. Techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness, and evaluating worry thoughts can help to calm the amygdala and cortex when responding to stress.
There are also medication options for treatment of anxiety to calm anxious reactions. If you believe that your anxiety or fear reactions are negatively impacting your daily life, it can be beneficial to reach out to a treatment provider, such as a Therapist or Psychiatrist, for assistance with managing these symptoms and learning skills to reduce your level of anxiety.
There is hope in knowing that the brain has the ability to change and adapt to develop new ways of responding to help individuals find a more calm state of mind and overall wellbeing. As we believe at MindPath, Healthcare begins with Mindcare.