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How Anxiety Affects Your Brain Health: 7 coping strategies

Roger Miller Clinical Psychologist Aviv Clinics by Roger Miller, Ph.D , Clinical Psychologist
November 15, 2021

Worry and everyday stressors are common triggers for anxiety, a condition that ignites areas of the brain responsible for detecting and responding to real-life threats. Anxiety can affect brain health because a brain fueled by it produces the flight-or-fight response, which can cause a variety of symptoms like an elevated heart rate, trembling, and fear.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults. Those who suffer from anxiety are all too familiar with the cascade of physical symptoms, from feeling faint and shaky to hyperventilating. What you may not realize, however, is that all those episodes of anxiety may be harming the brain, especially if the anxiety goes untreated over the course of time.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of worry, dread, or nervousness. It is an emotional and physiological response to an impending event or an uncontrollable situation. In severe cases, this state of apprehension can lead to compulsive behaviors or panic attacks.

It’s perfectly normal to experience some degree of anxiety in certain situations, like having to give a speech in front of an audience or taking a test.

But, when anxiety becomes chronic, excessive, and interferes with your quality of life, that’s when the brain begins to negatively experience its effects.

What causes anxiety?

There are several things that can lead to anxiety disorders. Genetics, brain dysfunction or injury, post-traumatic stress syndrome, environmental stressors like abuse and neglect, substance abuse, and medical conditions like thyroid disease, all can be behind anxiety. In many cases, depression and anxiety go hand-in-hand.

What happens to your brain when you become anxious?

 

Anxiety and the Brain

When a person experiences anxiety, the brain’s amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex (PFC) become hyperactive. These parts of the brain are responsible for sensing danger, whether that danger is real or imagined. They trigger the surge of adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone) throughout the body in response to that perceived danger. This activates the flight-or-fight response.

The reaction serves the body well if it is truly in a life-threatening situation because the adrenaline and cortisol allow the body to react quickly with heightened awareness. In these cases, the brain is doing exactly what it’s designed to do to protect the body.

However, your brain’s well-equipped, danger-interpreting processes may be impaired by unhealthy reasoning and inappropriate thought responses. How you react to the physical symptoms and interpret the perceived threat will dictate how well you’re able to quell the flight-or-fight response and return to a state of calm. Without the ability to assess a non-threatening situation properly and realistically, anxiety can become chronic and detrimental to brain health.

Excessive and prolonged anxiety translates to an overabundance of stress hormones flooding the body’s nervous system. This can ultimately lead to panic attacks, a more severe side of anxiety.

An overly anxious brain becomes much like the boy who cried wolf: always on high alert for incoming danger, despite many false alarms. In this heightened state, the brain has a harder time reasoning rationally and is less able to interpret real-life danger.

Studies show stress may actually shrink parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, which processes long-term and contextual memory. Persistent anxiety can impact the brain’s ability to store memories and cause memory loss symptoms.

Stanford University biological sciences professor Robert Sapolsky noted that research,

“shows links between long-term stressful life experiences, long-term exposure to hormones produced during stress, and shrinking of the part of the brain involved in some types of memory and learning.”

That makes treating anxiety early ever more critical as you move closer to your Golden Years.

How to cope with anxiety

Anxiety and Therapy

The first step in overcoming anxiety is recognizing there is a problem. If anxiety is limiting your ability to enjoy life, you’re unable to sleep, are irritable, notice changes in your appetite, or you’re experiencing physical and mental changes, it’s time to seek help.

While there are medications that can be used to help cope with anxiety, restructuring reasoning through cognitive therapy is another important part of feeling better. The goal of cognitive therapy is to replace the negative self-talk during an anxiety-driven episode with more realistic and reasonable thought processing. This ultimately works to de-escalate the flight-or-fight response.

Stress or anxiety occurs when our pressures exceed our resources. Here are some healthy coping strategies to incorporate into your daily life for managing stress and anxiety:

  1. Practice routine self-care. Listen to music, meditate, get a massage, or practice yoga.
  2. Eat well-balanced meals. Choose healthy options and avoid overeating.
  3. Limit alcohol and caffeine, which are stimulants and can worsen symptoms of anxiety.
  4. Get enough sleep. Stress can disrupt sleep. Create a healthy environment conducive to getting a good night’s sleep.
  5. Exercise daily. Shoot for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least five days a week.
  6. Talk to someone! If you’re feeling overwhelmed, talk to your family doctor or seek help from a therapist.

The bottom line

Anxiety is treatable and controllable. There are healthful ways to cope with anxiety, so you can protect the part of the brain that enables you to learn and store memories. With practice, you can learn how to take a deep breath, assess a situation appropriately, and avoid an impending wave of anxiety.

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