How Stress and Anxiety Affect the Brain

If you’ve ever been pulled over by the police or have had to give a speech in front of a large crowd, you’re probably familiar with stress and anxiety in some form or another. These emotions can trigger not only a mental response but a physical one too. While some level of stress and anxiety is actually normal and healthy, these feelings in excess can severely impact a person’s daily life – not to mention their health.

The Difference Between Stress and Anxiety

We’ve all heard the terms “stress” and “anxiety” used interchangeably. The issue with this is that stress and anxiety are actually different feelings. When you feel stress, it’s because of a known source – you’re on a tight deadline or the kids just won’t listen. This stress might manifest in feelings of anger, sadness, or irritability, as well.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a specific feeling of fear and/or dread. It may not have a known trigger either. People with an anxiety disorder will oftentimes wake up feeling anxious for no apparent reason. Anxiety can also stem from chronic stress, as well. Someone whose body has a consistent surge of stress hormones running through it is at a higher risk for developing generalized anxiety.

What Happens in the Brain When You’re Stressed or Anxious

There are two parts of the brain that are thought to be key players in the production and processing of anxiety – the amygdala and the hippocampus.

“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.” (National Institute of Mental Health).

Once the brain has encountered a threat (whether actual or perceived), it releases a surge of chemicals, like cortisol and norepinephrine. These chemicals give us a natural boost in reflex time, perception, and speed. They cause our hearts to pump faster in order to get more blood and oxygen circulating through our bodies; we essentially go into “survival mode.”

What Stress and Anxiety do to the Brain Over Time

This survival response is helpful and necessary when we encounter a real threat, but in excess, can cause long-term damage to our bodies. The effects of chronic stress have been linked to a weakened immune system, weight gain, and heart disease, among other issues.

But new research is finding a possible correlation between prolonged stress and anxiety, and structural degeneration of the hippocampus,

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and impaired functioning of the prefrontal cortex. This means that the wear and tear caused to the brain by chronic stress or anxiety could be tied to an increased risk of depression and dementia.

The good news is that some of the damage incurred from chronic stress and anxiety is “not completely irreversible,” according to some experts. It was long believed that once a brain lost volume, it was gone forever, but we now know that’s not entirely true. Our brains are plastic, meaning they’re capable of change. This plasticity allows our brains some degree of regrowth and regeneration.

The best way, however, to protect your brain and body from the effects of chronic stress and anxiety is to find a way to manage it before it begins to affect your health. Luckily, there are many different options for managing these conditions.

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Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. (2016, January 21). Chronic stress, anxiety can damage the brain, increase risk of major psychiatric disorders. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 19, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/01/160121121818.htm

Henry, Alan. (2013, November 20). “What Anxiety Does to Your Brain and What You Can Do About It.” Retrieved from https://lifehacker.com/what-anxiety-actually-does-to-you-and-what-you-can-do-a-1468128356

Singal, Jesse. (2016, March 13). “For 80 Years, Young Americans Have Been Getting More Anxious and Depressed, and No One Is Quite Sure Why.” Retrieved from https://www.thecut.com/2016/03/for-80-years-young-americans-have-been-getting-more-anxious-and-depressed.html

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