Anxiety and the brain: How does it affect?


In this article, we will understand how anxiety affects our brain and how important the hippocampus and amygdala are to the brain.

Table of contents

Surely we have all felt anxiety in some situation, tingling in the stomach, tremors, tension, or an excessive heart rate.

These symptoms correspond to a concept that we will have heard about, and this one has a crucial role in the brain. We would say that anxiety has accompanied us in multiple situations throughout our lives.

Thus, it can be said that, despite being unpleasant, it is not pathological in itself and, in fact, fulfills an adaptive function.

However, this may change. When it disproportionately affects and interrupts daily activities, it no longer fulfills such an adaptive function. In this way, it can cause physical and mental health problems and a decrease in our performance.

Giving way to clinical entities such as phobias, generalized anxiety disorder, or panic attacks, among others. Let's look at the effects of anxiety on the brain.

Difference Between Stress and Anxiety

Let's start by defining and distinguishing stress from anxiety.

  • Stress is the result of the person's inability to cope with the demands of the environment.
  • On the other hand, anxiety refers to an emotional reaction to a threat manifested at a cognitive, physiological, motor, and emotional level.

However, anxiety, fear, and stress, despite their differences, are not very different terms from each other.

And it is that they are closely related in terms of various neurocircuits such as the neuroendocrine system, which participates through hormones in the body's response to stress and anxiety.

Brain areas involved in anxiety

To understand how anxiety affects the brain, it is important to know the brain areas that manage this process. The studies carried out show that there is no single and specific region responsible for the integration of anxiety. Neither does a single neurotransmission system.

However, there are a large number of nerve centers involved in the production and modulation of anxiety in the brain. These are mostly areas that are part of the limbic system.

Different brain areas are involved, such as the amygdala, the insula, the ventral striatum, the hypothalamus, the ventral regions of the anterior cingulate cortex, and the prefrontal cortex. Specifically, the ventromedial zone and the orbitofrontal cortex.

Limbic System
Limbic System (src: Simply Psychology)

The importance of the hippocampus and the amygdala

We will focus on two areas, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. This first is a structure located in the temporal lobe related to survival and fear.

In other words, if we were faced with external factors that could pose a threat, the amygdala would be activated to indicate that we should move away from that threat and thus increase the chances of survival.

In addition to this, it would also be related to emotional responses and the recognition of facial expressions. Having a clear role in the formation and recovery of memories that are related to fear.

Likewise, the amygdala receives input from other structures such as the hypothalamus, thalamus, and hippocampus.

The latter, important in the consolidation of memory and learning, has the function of storing dangerous events in the form of memories in order to avoid them in future situations.

What would happen without the amygdala?

We might ask ourselves: What would happen if we didn't have an amygdala? Would the anxiety response go away? The truth is that if this area, so important for this response, was damaged, there would be a decrease in anxiety.

The case of Klüver-Bucy syndrome is a behavioral disorder where there is an alteration of the medial temporal lobes, affecting the amygdala.

Therefore, in this affectation, all the functions of the amygdala would be diminished. However, the fact that anxiety was reduced is not as beneficial as it might seem.

Effects of anxiety?

Some of the mentioned areas begin to fail. When we talk about anxiety and the brain, one crucial area is the prefrontal cortex. This is responsible for regulating emotions, among many other functions, and suffers a deterioration in its functioning in the face of chronic anxiety.

Research shows that people with an anxiety disorder have a hyperactive amygdala, that is, in continuous activation, processing any stimulus as threatening.

On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex is hypoactive. This generates that the regulation of the emotions that I have mentioned is not carried out in the correct way and the anxiety is prolonged.

All this, added to the consequent imbalance of the neurotransmitters involved. This results in the person suffering from it being in a loop of anxiety from which it is very difficult to get out.

Anxiety damage to the brain

Studies carried out show that stress and anxiety, when prolonged over time, not only have effects at the time they appear.

There is also a long-term effect that generates harmful effects on the brain.

Such is the severity, which can lead to an increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders.

Some highlights are depression and, recently, its relationship with dementia has been discovered (among the most frequent Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia).

Various investigations conclude that an excessive anxiety response can lead to the aging of brain cells and changes in the central nervous system. Also linked to an increased risk of mild cognitive impairment. Do we get a slight idea of ​​how anxiety affects us?

Can anxiety be prevented?

With proper treatment, neurogenesis (birth of new neurons) of the hippocampus can be increased, normalizing the functional activity of the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.

Because each anxiety disorder is different, the subsequent treatment will also be different, adapting to the person and the symptoms they manifest.

Today, the most common treatment techniques for anxiety disorders are cognitive, pharmacological, and behavior-focused.

Even those that are oriented to relaxation and meditation.

On the other hand, the role of physical exercise and the importance of a healthy lifestyle have been highlighted. Avoiding the consumption of drugs or substances that can favor its appearance (caffeine, theine, amphetamines...).

Bottom line

Anxiety is a normal emotion that we have all felt at some point. An adaptive mechanism that allows us to act in the face of a threat. It protects us.

However, when it persists, intensifies, and becomes uncontrollable, it begins to be considered pathological. Cases like these have begun to increase exponentially in recent years.

The role of anxiety and its effects on the brain are confirmed.

An increase gives way to abnormalities in the functioning of various areas, especially in the autonomic nervous system. Which can lead to numerous disorders, including cardiovascular conditions and psychosomatic disorders.

Therefore, taking into account, being aware of this emotion and knowing the effects of anxiety is key to its control. Being recognized and important utility psychotherapeutic tools.

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  • Brion, M., Pitel, A.-L., Beaunieux, H., & Maurage, P. (2014). Revisiting the Continuum Hypothesis: Toward an In-Depth Exploration of Executive Functions in Korsakoff Syndrome. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8.
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  • Fox, A.S. & Shackman, A.J. (2019). The central extended amygdala in fear and anxiety: Closing the gap between mechanistic and neuroimaging research. Neuroscience Letters, 693, 58-67.
Disclaimer: This article is purely informative, I have no authority to make a diagnosis or recommend treatment. I invite you to visit a psychologist to treat your particular case.