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Anxiety and the Brain

Everyone deals with some form of anxiety throughout their life, whether someone is about to speak in public or go to a job interview. This is typical, and a little bit of anxiety is a good thing! Anxiety can help motivate us to take on new challenges and to do our best. However, for some, anxiety is much stronger, intense, and persistent than the typical nervous feeling one may get prior to a test or a new social situation. What exactly is anxiety? Why do some people have more anxiety than others? How do you cope with such intense fears?

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, as well as the most common mental health disorder in childhood and adolescence. According to The Child and Mind Institute, nearly 1 in every 3 children will meet criteria for an anxiety disorder by age 18. There are several factors that play into this—one being that anxiety is genetic. Again, anxiety can be a good thing and is a natural human response. Nonetheless, when anxiety becomes so persistent that it interferes with one’s everyday life, it is likely to turn into a disorder. So, let’s talk about why anxiety happens and what goes on in the brain to cause it.

Everyone has heard of the good ole fight-or-flight response. This response is triggered by a release of hormones that prepare your body to either stay and deal with a threat or to run away to avoid a threat. It can protect us from danger! For example, if a person goes on a walk in the park and a ferocious dog started growling and running towards them, the fight-or-flight response would kick in and they would get out of that situation and run to safety. In that example, their flight-or-flight response is appropriately protecting them and giving them true signals of danger. It is important to note that sometimes, the fight-or-flight response can be triggered by real and unreal dangers.

An anxiety disorder results when the fight-or-flight response becomes triggered too easily and too frequently, and gives us false alarms for danger. One example of a common false alarm for danger is when someone goes to school to present a project, and all the sudden their fight-or-flight response kicks in, causing thoughts such as “you can’t present in front of everyone!” “you will mess up!” “everyone will laugh at you!” “you don’t know what you are even talking about!” “you are going to fail!” The person who is experiencing this would flee from the situation (this may look like skipping school), because their flight-or-flight response has caused them to truly believe this situation is dangerous.

So, why does this happen? What causes certain people to experience anxiety and unreal triggers to fight-or-flight? The answer lies in the brain, specifically, in the amygdala. The amygdala is the tiny almond shaped part of the brain that reacts to threatening events, objects, and people and is responsible for your emotions. The amygdala operates unconsciously, meaning that you cannot control it. It is immediate and automatic. Once it is triggered, it sends direct danger signals to your brain so your body can prepare to fight-or-flight. This is a really great thing, as we never really have to prepare for danger, because our fight-or-flight response will kick in without us even planning on it! However, for someone who has anxiety, the amygdala produces fear-like symptoms for unreal dangers, and it can be extremely frustrating and confusing. When someone has anxiety, they are experiencing fear from things that are not real danger threats. Typical triggers for these unreal threats are unwanted thoughts, unwanted memories, or new and unexpected experiences or situations. This can result in a person with anxiety missing out on life experiences and opportunities.

Don’t worry, there is good news! The brain can be trained to think differently and more rationally. Research shows your brain can be trained through fear exposure (or a treatment called Exposure Response Prevention) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Fear exposures include repeatedly exposing oneself to anxiety triggers in incremental steps. This exposure process will teach the amygdala that the feared event is not dangerous. Therefore, the amygdala will eventually stop producing the fight-or-flight reaction in response to that trigger all together. For example, let’s say someone has a fear of dogs. The exposure process may start by looking at pictures of dogs. Once this person is comfortable with looking at the pictures, they would move on to a more challenging exposure such as standing across the park from a dog who is on a leash. Once they are OK with that situation, the next exposure may be standing in the same room as a dog on a leash. This exposure would continue in progressive steps until the person is able to be around dogs and even pet a dog with very little to no anxiety.

Here are a few tips to help train your brain:

1. Do not avoid your fears or things that cause your anxiety: By avoiding the things that cause your anxiety, you are only reinforcing your anxiety! The more that you avoid an anxiety producing situation, the more likely you are to avoid future anxiety producing situations.

2. Create a fear ladder: Begin by identifying the core fear you want to work on (e.g. “being able to pet a dog”). Then, rate your fears related to this core fear from least scary to scariest using a number scale. Here is an example:

0. Thinking about dogs

1. Looking at pictures of dogs

2. Watching a video of dogs

3. Standing across the park from a dog on a leash

4. Standing in the same room as a dog on a leash

5. Being in the park near a dog on a leash

6. Standing in the same room as a dog off the leash

7. Petting a dog on a leash

8. Petting a dog off a leash

Once you have your fear ladder, start at 0 to begin working on it! For more specific information on how to use a fear ladder, visit . This is something you may be able to do at home, however, many people find it extremely helpful to work on this with a mental health professional.

3. Meditate: Mediation is something that can help you put aside distressing thoughts or problems and focus on just being. This will help you learn to escape some of your negative thoughts associated with anxiety.​

4. Create Routines: Routines are comforting for an anxious brain and can help counteract feeling of worry.

5. Physical activity: This can be so helpful for calming an anxious brain! This does not have to be running 7 miles a day or going to an intense weightlifting class. Light activities such as cleaning the house, doing yardwork, going on a bike ride, or going on a walk can help decrease anxiety.


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