The Brain and Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders seem to be a common occurrence in recent years. Each individual that suffers from anxiety has a different experience. There are many stories of lifelong illnesses, and others that mention a specific trigger point. Medication and therapy are among the options for treatment. Scientists and doctors are also starting to find the differences in the brain that occur with anxiety patients.

Brain and Anxiety Disorders 1


The first thing noticed about individuals with anxiety is their state of mind and response habits. They do not react to daily stimuli and situations in an average way. Fear is driving their actions in more ways than one. Physical changes in the brain dictate fearful actions to incoming information. Over time, people with anxiety learn to prepare for possible triggers so they can function more efficiently. Life, however, is not always predictable. You may see an anxious person flee a situation, suffer shortness of breath, or have chest pains. Full blown panic attacks can completely incapacitate the subject.

Various Forms

All anxiety is not equal in focus or severity. Some disorders relate to social interactions, others to phobias of specific items. Generalized anxiety can spread out into several subgroups. OCD is one form of anxiety that causes individuals to clean extensively, check things repeatedly, and count many things. The common factor in all anxiety is a feeling of fear and of being “stuck”. The stuck feeling stems from the inability to move past the anxious response and continue with regular tasks.

Physical Differences

Physical differences in the brain have been noticed in anxiety patients. The ability to view brain activity and the brain itself is a magnificent tool in deciphering issues with anxiety sufferers. Your brain has neurotransmitters that help to modify your disposition. These is often a problem with the production of these in anxiety patients.

The Chemicals

There are several chemicals in the brain that play a part in our emotional responses. Serotonin is the major focus of some medications for anxiety and depression. A lack of serotonin is believed to cause complications. Norepinephrine and GABA are also neurotransmitters that can contribute to anxiety problems. Norepinephrine, also called noradrenaline, has more than one function. Its role is that of a hormone and a neurotransmitter. It is produced by the adrenal gland.

Brain and Anxiety Disorders 2Normally these glands produce the chemicals that help to know when there is a threat and we need to respond with quick actions. In anxiety patients these chemicals do not play their role properly and the emergency response is played out inappropriately and often does not subside in a proper amount of time. GABA is the abbreviation for gamma-aminobutyric acid. This neurotransmitter is meant to keep its opposite, glutamate in check. The excitement caused by glutamate lingers and causes drawn out and heightened responses if not subdued. The brain is an amazing organ that changes over time as we experience life.


The issue with balance involves the underproduction of the mentioned chemicals. The chemicals in your body should work together to create balanced physical and mental reactions to stimuli. These dysfunctions can be present at birth or created over time. It is not always clear if one is pre-disposed or has acquired the problem from experience. The brain chemistry responds to things like years of abuse and sudden trauma. When the balance is thrown off, anxiety and other mental challenges present themselves.


Hormone changes can also be responsible for mood disorders and anxiety. This is easy to see in short-term changes to the body such as pregnancy. Many women experience depression for a little while after their babies are born. This is called postpartum depression and is often treated with the same medications as long-term problems. Thyroid troubles also cause an array of negative symptoms. The thyroid controls the regular output of serotonin, GABA, and norepinephrine. Malfunction, growths, and cancer of the thyroid contribute to these issues. Hormones are important to the body in many ways.

Recurring Changes

An interesting effect of ongoing anxiety is how repetitive behaviors seem to strengthen over time. When children are learning, the information at school is repeated until it becomes easy. Anxious behaviors, especially OCD actions, seem to become the norm when experienced for long periods of time. Many therapeutic methods work to train the person to change physical habits. This training has to be practiced until it replaces the anxious behaviors. Changing the brain’s responses can be a complicated pursuit.


Some anxiety is triggered by traumatic events. These patients can often pinpoint an exact moment when their anxiety started. Some of these individuals, however, may not understand exactly why the even tripped an anxious response. Once these people learn to accept and deal with the incident, they may still harbor remnants anxiety. This is where the learned responses come in.

Some individuals seem to be pre-disposed to these types of disorders. There are people who remember having certain symptoms from early childhood or adolescence. Not everyone who experiences the same traumatic experiences ends up with anxiety. Particular types of pre-existing conditions in the brain can be the culprit of pre-disposition.

The Brain

Different parts of the brain have been found to be different and to change with anxiety. Over time, a person living with anxiety experiences a weakening of certain parts of the brain. These parts have shown to be smaller after symptoms have been experienced over many years. The hippocampus is one area that becomes affected. There is also a change apparent in the orbitofrontal cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex are 2 of the affected areas. Other parts involved are the anterior cingulate, and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is a main component of the brain involved in panic attacks. This part of the brain overly responds in the case of anxiety patients. The brain is capable of learning behaviors and responses. Unfortunately, when anxiety is experienced, the negative traits are reinforced.

Anxiety is a very real experience for those that suffer from it. Unkind attitudes often cause the individuals to avoid seeking help from medical professionals. Awareness of the physical causes may help the general population to withdraw the stigma of anxiety disorders. Chemicals in the body and the brain contribute heavily to the problems experienced with these patients. Our brains are complex and change over time in response to outside stimulation. Everyone has different experiences, therefore, we all present with unique brain responses and function. Do you have anything to add? We would love to hear from you about anxiety.

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