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How Anxiety Affects Your Brain Health: 7 Coping Strategies

Roger Miller Clinical Psychologist Aviv Clinics
by Roger Miller, PhD , Clinical Psychologist
November 15, 2021

Worry and everyday stressors are common triggers for anxietya condition that ignites areas of the brain responsible for detecting and responding to real-life threats. Anxiety can affect brain health because it produces the flight-or-fight response, which can “make the heart pound and breathing quicken.”

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in the United States, 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 brainespecially if the anxiety goes untreated over the course of time.

Anxiety and the Brain

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 and 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:  

What Happens to Your Brain When You Become Anxious?

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 dangerwhether 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. 

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.

What the Research Says

Studies illustrate stress “reduces hippocampal volume.” The hippocampus processes long-term and contextual memory, so 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. Learn more on how stress impacts the brain

How to Cope with Anxiety

The first step in overcoming anxiety is recognizing there is a problem. If you notice any of these signs, it’s time to seek help: 

  • Your anxiety is limiting your ability to enjoy life.
  • You’re consistently unable to sleep.
  • You feel irritable.
  • You notice changes in your appetite.
  • You’re experiencing physical and mental changes.

While there are medications available to help cope with anxiety, restructuring reasoning through cognitive therapy is an 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 seven 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. Wellness apps such as Headspace offer meditation and yoga guides, as well as relaxing music to help you wind down. 

Look into local massage therapy services such as kneading or face/neck rubbing to reduce tension in your body. 

2. Eat Well-Balanced Meals 

Choose healthy options and avoid overeating. Consider the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet. 

MIND is a blend of two diets: 

  • Mediterranean: A heart-healthy eating plan
  • DASH: Addresses hypertension or high blood pressure

This diet encourages you to consume a variety of fruits and vegetables, and is linked to “better cognitive function and memory, and larger total brain volume.”  

3. Limit Alcohol and Caffeine 

Despite some feelings of stimulation, alcohol depresses the central nervous system and can worsen symptoms of anxiety. So can caffeine, which is a stimulant. Instead, drink more water. Experts say, “Most people need about four to six cups of water each day,” though if you’re exercising or sweating heavily, you may need “two to three cups of water per hour, or more.” 

Non-caffeinated teas, such as chamomile tea, are well known for relaxing properties you can enjoy during any time of the day. 

4. Get Enough Sleep  

Stress can disrupt sleep. Create a healthy environment conducive to getting a good night’s sleep. Experts recommend “healthy adults get an average of 7 to 9 hours per night of shuteye.”

Here are some tips: 

  • Shut down all electronics an hour before bedtime. Research reports “two or more hours of screen time in the evening can seriously disrupt the melatonin surge needed to fall asleep.” 
  • Read a good book or take a warm bath. These activities help your mind and body wind down. 
  • Keep a consistent sleep schedule. This will encourage your circadian rhythm to stabilize. 
  • Keep a cool temperature in your room. Experts note “our body temperature naturally drops” at nighttime. So a cooler room “reinforc[es] your body’s natural instinct to sleep.”

5. Exercise Daily 

Shoot for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least three days a week. To help motivate yourself to consistently exercise: 

  • Find a type of movement you love. Whether gardening, dancing, playing tennis, or golfing, stick to an activity that makes you feel good. 
  • Start small and work your way up. Don’t start with high-intensity exercises—starting this way may just burn you out or, worse, cause injuries. Instead, opt to start with light activities (e.g., a brisk walk), and then as you get more comfortable and confident, gradually build the intensity (e.g., a jog). 

6. Connect with Your Community or Faith-Based Organization

Lean on trusted friends and family members or faith leaders for support. They can offer a listening ear, honest advice, and/or a walk or activity to get your mind off stressors. Simply talking with someone can ease anxiety.

7. Speak to a Professional 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, talk to your family doctor or seek help from a therapist. Speaking to a professional can help you process what you’re feeling and why you might be feeling it, and suggest personalized ways to cope. 

As each person is different, seeking a customized approach from a therapist/doctor can make a big difference, especially if you haven’t seen any improvements from the strategies listed above. 

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.

For more help on enhancing your physical and cognitive performance, contact the Aviv Clinics at The Villages.

Aviv Medical Program provides you with a unique opportunity to invest in your health while you age

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