Anxiety, Our Brains, and the Downward Spiral


Anxiety, Our Brains, and the Downward Spiral

Anxiety Disorders affect an estimated 40 million Americans. Only about 1/3 of those receive treatment.  Feeling anxious is a normal experience for most everyone. Often it is a productive emotion. Anxiety provides motivation, alerts us to danger, and prepares us for action. Anxiety disorders, however, are debilitating and can significantly impact someone’s life.

Recent advancements in understanding about the human brain have greatly benefited our fight against mental health disorders. We understand that our brain is designed to protect us. It is constantly scanning for signs of danger, even while we are asleep. When we are alerted to danger (real or perceived), messages are sent from our brain to the rest of our body. It is a call to action for the rest of our body to respond. This is what is referred to as the flight, fight or freeze response click for more. Although a built in protective system, this could also set off false alarms and work against us. For many people who experience anxiety disorders, their brains are on high alert more often than needed.

An area in our brain, the limbic system, contains a majority of the flight, fight or freeze response. Once a threat is determined, a chain reaction is triggered within our body. Our hypothalamus responds to stress by releasing hormones. This increases our heart rate, breathing accelerates, blood flows to major muscle groups, muscles tense, and our body is preparing for action. This whole experience is stored in a part of our brain (hippocampus) for future reference. It is also easily accessible creating a similar response when facing the same situation. A negative feedback loop is created. It is made more difficult by cloudy thinking that presents itself when we are stressed out. Simply put, we are more likely to make poor decisions when stressed out. For those experiencing anxiety disorders, this could happen more intensely and more often.

Stress and anxiety also impacts sleep and diet. This creates additional complications. If our brain has difficulty shutting down at night, we are going to lose sleep. The challenges in shutting down is typical with those experiencing anxiety disorders. When our body is activated by a stress response, it can also impact our appetite. A hormone is released (corticotrophin), which along with adrenaline released in our body, suppresses our appetite. When we are hungry, it is more difficult to concentrate and we feel more worn down. These reactions give us less energy and clarity to address anxiety.  The stress and anxiety symptoms not only make it more extremely uncomfortable for us, they could set the stage for more intense anxiety and stress.

Individuals with anxiety disorders isolate themselves. The reasons for this vary. Being around others could be a source of anxiety in leading to the itself leading to avoidance of the stressor. Fear of intense anxiety episodes, not wanting to burden others, worrying how you may present yourself to others (awkward), and feeling frustrated that no one understands your struggles, are factors that influence choosing to be by themselves. Inactivity and isolation will further fuel anxiety disorders.

Cortisol is one of the hormones that is released into the body. This is an attempt by our body to return itself to a normal state and correct the stress we are feeling from our response. Elevated levels of cortisol can damage brain structure and function. This  results in cellular changes that increase the chances of us experiencing anxiety.

Lastly, there is a difference between short and long term stress. Short term or acute stress usually has a beginning and an end to it. Our house is on fire we get stressed and act to get to safety. Once we are safe (stressor removed) it is over. Long term stress happens over a long period. This could be hours, days, weeks, months or even years. Chronic illnesses are one example.  Constant long term stress or frequent acute stress can take its toll on our minds and bodies. It changes the way our brain sends messages within our system, resulting in a loss of information that is helpful in our day to day functioning.

If we step back from all this information, we see that stress/anxiety creates more stress/anxiety. It is a self-feeding illness. Breaking this pattern of anxiety is not easy and takes effort. Our natural response to stress worsens our situation. What we need to do, does not come easy. We must rewire our brain.

The first step is recognizing that most of our anxious thoughts are just that…anxious thoughts. There are some rough estimates to keep in mind:  40% of things we worry about never happen, 30% are in the past and we cannot change,12% involve the affairs of others that are not our business, and 10% relate to sickness, real or imagined. Only about 8% of things we worry about are likely to happen. If we recognize that the thoughts we have are worry thoughts, then we can give them less credibility. For example, we believe that people are hinging on every word we say, this creates intense anxiety when we speak. However, if we recognize this this thought is irrational and just an anxiety thought, we can quickly shift to addressing how to eliminate that thought and address physical symptoms that accompany the thoughts.

Keeping a journal of day to day thoughts, intensity, frequency, duration of anxiety, intensity of anxiety, and thoughts associated with anxiety is often helpful. This will allow for less rumination and the ability to step back and identify your thinking patterns. It also allows you to predict anxiety provoking situations as well as preventing the negative feedback loop.

In addition to recognizing and challenging anxious thoughts, here are some additional suggestions.

  • Try to maintain regular and healthy eating habits. Eating several small portions of food during day could be an option if eating larger meals are difficult.
  • Develop good sleep routines and habits. Develop a plan of action to maintain good sleep. sleep tips
  • Exercise daily, even 20 minutes a day could help. This improves our health as well as cognition.
  • Get some fresh air. Change of scenery can always help
  • Maintain social connections. Do not isolate yourself
  • Explore some forms of meditation or relaxation. Meditation type of activities can calm the anxious mind
  • Solicit others for problem solving advice. If it involves something that does not have a solution, the effort now should be on moving out of anxious thought
  • Create some structure and consistency. Little things, such as always putting your car keys in the same location can help a lot. When we are stressed we do not think clearly. A part of our brain system, the hippocampus, remembers stationary easier than nonstationary or moving events. We are creating more stress for ourselves when we become less organized. Stress tips
  • Roll with the punches. Accepting that anxiety will always be there to some degree. Avoid creating circumstances where symptoms can be exasperated. The more you react to the anxiety the more intense it could be. Like a Chinese finger puzzle, the more you fight it the more difficult it is to escape.
  • Schedule a break for yourself (mini vacation). Getting a massage or going to the spa can offer reprieve from a daily battle being fought.
  • Understand what can be changed in our lives, what we need to adjust to, or what we need to walk away from. This ensures our energy is directed productively.

It is not completely understood how people develop anxiety disorders. Genetics, the way our brain is wired, environment, and events can all play a part. Anxiety disorders can be managed. Consider expanding your resources to address the symptoms of the anxiety disorder. If the anxiety order persists it can be addressed through other avenues including psychotherapy and/or medication.