How Anxiety Affects Your Brain And What You Can Do About It07/12/2013 00:54
by Dr. Joseph Mercola – Mercola.com
Anxiety is a natural, normal response to potential threats, which puts your body into a heightened state of awareness.
When felt appropriately, anxiety is beneficial and can keep you out of harm’s way… the anxiety you may feel while hiking near a steep drop-off, for instance, will cause you to be more careful and purposeful in your movements.
For an estimated 40 million US adults, however, anxiety may occur even when there’s no real threat, causing unnecessary stress and emotional pain. While many believe anxiety and stress to be the same, persistent anxiety actually evokes quite a different experience in your brain.
Anxiety in Your Brain: What Happens When Anxiety Attacks?
Anxiety does evoke the same “fight or flight” response that stress does, which means, like stress, anxiety will trigger a flood of stress hormones like cortisol designed to enhance your speed, reflexes, heart rate, and circulation. However, stress can occur with feelings of anger, sadness, or even happiness and excitement.
Anxiety, on the other hand, virtually always involves a sense of fear, dread, or apprehension. And while stress may occur due to an external source (like an argument with your spouse), anxiety tends to be a more internal response.
Further, brief anxiety may coincide with a stressful event (such as speaking in public), but an anxiety disorder will persist for months even when there’s no clear reason to be anxious. While the exact causes for anxiety disorders are unknown, your brain is actively involved.
The National Institute of Mental Health explains:
“Several parts of the brain are key actors in the production of fear and anxiety… scientists have discovered that the amygdala and the hippocampus play significant roles in most anxiety disorders.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that is believed to be a communications hub between the parts of the brain that process incoming sensory signals and the parts that interpret these signals. It can alert the rest of the brain that a threat is present and trigger a fear or anxiety response.
The emotional memories stored in the central part of the amygdala may play a role in anxiety disorders involving very distinct fears, such as fears of dogs, spiders, or flying. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that encodes threatening events into memories.”
Your Brain May Become Wired for Anxiety
It’s thought that anxiety disorders may result from a combination of nature (your genetics) and nurture (your environment). For instance, if you grow up in an environment with frequent yelling or abuse.
It might make you prone to looking out for potential threats, even when they’re no longer there. In a sense, your brain becomes “wired” for anxiety, such that any potentially undesirable event or emotion becomes cause for alarm.
Worse yet, some people are so used to feelings of anxiety that they don’t realize there’s a problem and simply suffer in silence. As anxious feelings intensify, it can lead to social isolation, physical symptoms, and related mental health problems, like depression.
Despite this, it’s estimated that only one-third of people with anxiety disorders receive treatment, which is highly recommended if you’re struggling with anxiety — but keep in mind “treatment” doesn’t necessarily mean drugs.
Unfortunately, most people who suffer with anxiety either do nothing or resort to pharmaceutical drugs – many of which are ineffective and capable of destroying your health and sanity further. Commonly prescribed drugs include benzodiazepine drugs like Ativan, Xanax, and Valium.
They exert a calming effect by boosting the action of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the same way as opioids (heroin) and cannabinoids (cannabis) do. This in turn activates the gratification hormone, dopamine, in your brain.
Since the identical brain “reward pathways” are used by both types of drugs, they can be equally addictive and also may cause side effects like memory loss, hip fractures, impaired thinking, and dizziness.
Ironically, the symptoms of withdrawal from many of these anxiety medications include extreme states of anxiety – some of which are far worse than the original symptoms that justified treatment in the first place.
If You’re Wired for Anxiety, Try EFT
Energy psychology techniques, such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), can be very effective by helping you to actually reprogram your body’s reactions to the unavoidable stressors of everyday life.
This includes both real and imagined stressors, which can be significant sources of anxiety. EFT was developed in the 1990s by Gary Craig, a Stanford engineer specializing in healing and self-improvement. It’s akin to acupuncture, which is based on the concept that a vital energy flows through your body along invisible pathways known as meridians. EFT stimulates different energy meridian points in your body by tapping them with your fingertips, while simultaneously using custom-made verbal affirmations.
This can be done by yourself or under the supervision of a qualified therapist, either in person or via online video services, like Skype, FaceTime, or Google Hangouts. By doing so, you help your body eliminate emotional “scarring” and reprogram the way your body responds to emotional stressors.
Since these stressors are usually connected to physical problems, many people’s diseases and other symptoms can improve or disappear as well. If you have a severe problem, it is typically best to consult directly with an EFT professional, otherwise you might not get the relief you need.
In the following video, EFT therapist Julie Schiffman discusses EFT for stress and anxiety relief. Please keep in mind that while anyone can learn to do EFT at home, self-treatment for serious issues like persistent anxiety is dangerous and NOT recommended.
It is dangerous because it will allow you to falsely conclude that EFT does not work when nothing could be further from the truth. For serious or complex issue you need someone to guide you through the process, as it typically takes years of training to develop the skill to tap on and relieve deep-seated, significant issues.
The Major Contributor to Anxiety That Hardly Anyone Knows
Increasingly, scientific evidence shows that nourishing your gut flora with the friendly bacteria known as probiotics is extremely important for proper brain function, and that includes psychological well-being and mood control. It may sound odd that bacteria in your gut could impact emotions such as anxiety, but that is exactly what the research bears testimony to. The probiotic known as Bifidobacterium longum NCC3001, for instance, has been shown to normalize anxiety-like behavior in mice with infectious colitis.
In a very real sense, you have two brains, one inside your skull and one in your gut (the so-called “enteric nervous system”), and each needs its own vital nourishment. Your gut and brain actually work in tandem, each influencing the other. This is why your intestinal health can have such a profound influence on your mental health, and vice versa; as well as the reason why your diet is so closely linked to your mental health.
Prior research has also shown that the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus had a marked effect on GABA (an inhibitory neurotransmitter that is significantly involved in regulating many physiological and psychological processes) levels in certain brain regions and lowered the stress-induced hormone corticosterone, resulting in reduced anxiety- and depression-related behavior.
So optimizing your gut flora with beneficial bacteria is a highly useful strategy. This is done by eliminating sugars and processed foods and eating plenty of non-starchy vegetables, avoiding processed vegetable oils, and using healthful fats. Additionally, using plenty of fermented vegetables or a high-potency probiotic would be useful to reestablish a healthy gut flora.
Your Diet Plays an Important Role in Your Mental Health
If you suffer from anxiety, it would be wise to look into nourishing your gut flora, and the best way to do this is to regularly consume traditionally fermented foods, which are naturally rich in beneficial bacteria. Pasteurized versions will NOT have the same benefits, as the pasteurization process destroys many, if not all of the naturally-occurring probiotics. So you will need to seek out traditionally fermented, unpasteurized foods like fermented vegetables, or make them yourself.
If you do not eat these types of foods regularly, then a high-quality probiotic supplement can help fill in the gap and give your gut the healthy bacteria it needs. This is the first part of the equation. The second part of the equation to optimizing your gut flora lies in avoiding the many factors that can throw your bacteria equilibrium way off balance, such as eating sugar, refined grains and other processed foods or taking antibiotics.
Additionally, your diet should include a high-quality source of animal-based omega-3 fats, like krill oil. The omega-3 fats EPA and DHA play an important role in your emotional well-being, and research has shown a dramatic 20 percent reduction in anxiety among med students taking omega-3s.
Exercise Is Frequently Helpful if You Have Anxiety
Some psychologists swear by exercise as a primary form of treatment for depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. Research has shown again and again that patients who follow regular exercise regimens see improvement in their mood — improvements comparable to that of those treated with medication.
The results really are impressive when you consider that exercise is virtually free and can provide you with numerous other health benefits, too. The benefits to your mood occur whether the exercise is voluntary or forced, so even if you feel you have to exercise, say for health reasons, there’s a good chance you’ll still benefit.
In addition to the creation of new neurons, including those that release the calming neurotransmitter GABA, exercise boosts levels of potent brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which may help buffer some of the effects of stress. Many avid exercisers also feel a sense of euphoria after a workout, sometimes known as the “runner’s high.” It can be quite addictive, in a good way, once you experience just how good it feels to get your heart rate up and your body moving.
If you struggle with anxiety, you really can’t go wrong with starting a comprehensive exercise program – virtually any physical activity is likely to have positive effects, especially if it’s challenging enough. That said, Duke University researchers recently published a review of more than 100 studies that found yoga appears to be particularly beneficial for mental health,7 although I also recommend high-intensity interval training like Peak Fitness and resistance training as well, in addition to flexibility and core-building exercises like yoga or Foundation Training.
Anxiety Can Be Crippling but You Can Still Take Control of Your Health
Anxiety disorders can be debilitating and in some cases require professional guidance, counseling and treatment. Two conventional treatments of anxiety disorders that have proven to be effective for many are psychotherapy and behavioral therapy. Behavioral therapy is defined as targeting the issue through breathing exercises and small increments of exposure to what is causing your anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy on the other hand, is designed to help you deal more effectively with situations that fill you with anxiety.
By using the above-mentioned strategies, however, including exercise, EFT and dietary changes, you can often teach your body how to maintain an alert yet relaxed state, which will help strengthen your inherent coping mechanisms when faced with stressful situations that trigger your anxiety symptoms. Please do seek professional help if you need it, but also don’t underestimate your own ability to make positive, oftentimes life-changing, decisions to help you take back control of your health.