Your question: What happens to my brain when I have anxiety?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. 

Anxiety is a rather complex phenomenon. In small doses, anxiety has its benefits. It allows us to confront threatening or dangerous situations by taking a specific action, commonly fight or flight from the threatening situation or person in question.

Everything that happens in our body when we feel anxiety is caused by our brain, which sends signals to our body that we are in a state of alert and therefore, we must react according to the situation that causes us anxiety.

If you are reading this you are probably wondering how your brain acts when you experience anxiety, either because you are curious to know a little more about your own experience of anxiety or because you want to learn how to “control” your brain to avoid feeling anxious in the future.

When anxiety becomes too intense and recurrent, it is a problem that requires your attention. Therefore, it is quite timely for you to be curious about how anxiety works in your brain, as understanding the source of something is the first step in being able to make changes.

Before I introduce you to coping strategies that will help you deal with anxiety symptoms, I will answer your question regarding what happens in your brain when you go through an anxiety episode.

How does your brain act during anxiety and what does it cause in your body?

The amygdala is the part of your brain responsible for detecting situations, things, animals and people that are frightening, intimidating or threatening. The amygdala sends a signal to the rest of your brain that you are in the presence of something or someone that could harm you (1).

When the amygdala locates the potential threat, it causes your brain to trigger neurotransmitters and hormones in your body that generate a state of alertness and arousal. Primarily, cortisol and adrenaline are related to feelings of anxiety.

Then, your body starts to feel like chaos. You feel tachycardia, sweating, muscle tension, headache, stomach ache, fatigue and other annoying physical symptoms because your body is preparing to face that threatening situation that the amygdala detected.

Your brain is overstimulated when you feel anxiety, because it senses that you are in danger. All these physical and emotional sensations triggered by anxiety are normal, and respond to the warning signal activated by the amygdala.

To better exemplify this, you can see your amygdala as the fire alarm in a school, and the students who run out as the different parts of your body that act in an uncontrolled way at the signal of danger.

How to control your anxiety?

Learning to control anxious symptoms is not an easy task, but it is not impossible either. You need to see a psychologist if you feel your symptoms are getting out of control. In psychological therapy, you will discover techniques to help you cope with the problems caused by anxiety.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1

This technique consists of using your senses to dissuade emotional discomfort at a given moment. It is useful when you experience a lot of physical agitation or when you feel you have a lot of unpleasant thoughts, and you find it difficult to control your emotions. Wherever you are, you will focus on identifying 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. This will allow you to focus your attention on specific things during the period of anxiety, and slowly, the feeling of intense worry will diminish.

Fix your sleep schedule

This can be difficult to do, as many people with anxiety develop sleep problems that are difficult to change. However, you should aim to establish specific sleep schedules in order to decrease your overall anxiety. This can be done with the help of a professional such as a psychologist or a sleep doctor who can help you establish routines for better sleep.

Breathing and relaxation

Inhale through your nose for three seconds, exhale through your mouth for another three seconds. This while you close your eyes and feel how slowly the tension in your body decreases. You can apply this exercise for at least 10 minutes a day at different times, and just after experiencing an episode of anxiety.

In my experience…

It is fascinating to study how our brain works in certain circumstances, and it also allows us to define a path that leads us to the changes we need to make to feel better about ourselves. Understanding how your anxiety works and how it affects your brain, allows you a broader understanding of yourself, and a guide to gradually improve your quality of life by combating the problems caused by anxiety.

I believe you have the ability to improve and heal these feelings of discomfort you are experiencing now. The fact that you are seeking professional help through this medium proves it to me, and I applaud you for making that decision and being on track to improve your mental health and overall, your physical health.

Was this helpful?

Thanks for your feedback!