How Does Anxiety Affect The Brain & Can You Stop It?

For many people, it’s hard to recall when the anxiety wasn’t always there.  When did it go from being a reaction to something new, to now just being a constant state of being? Anxiety or stress should not be an ongoing state, but rather a reaction to something that is triggered via a fight or flight response.  So how does anxiety affect the brain?

If you don’t recognize that you have anxiety, it’s unlikely you would know how to stop your anxiety in its tracks.  It can be done, but let’s go back for a minute to understand what might be going on.

How Does Anxiety Affect The Brain?

Our brains are hardwired to keep us safe and were designed (who knows how long ago) to ensure we do react to stressful situations.  The classic example is seeing a tiger or lion in the wild, and getting a message to “run like hell.” 

What Part Of The Brain Controls Anxiety?

The little guy in the brain that sends that message is called the amygdala (let’s call it Miggy), and since (most days) we no longer have to run from lions and tigers, we need a way to calm Miggy down.  

Miggy is quite small, shaped like an almond, and it’s like the communications hub in the brain, both getting signals and issuing responses.  Perhaps we should be calling it Miggy the modem! That was a bad IT joke if you missed it.

Miggy has quite a long memory, possibly longer than this lifetime, which might explain the lion-just-spotted type reactions.  Why else are we jumping out of our skins when we just dropped a jar of peanut butter or heard a car door close nearby?

What Chemical In The Brain Causes Anxiety?

When that fight or flight response occurs, the brain is flooded with cortisol and norepinephrine.  Both of these chemicals are designed to make you react, by in part, boosting your adrenals.  They can increase your perception, and determine how quickly you respond in dangerous situations. 

Long term exposure to cortisol can cause damage to the hippocampus, which is where our long and short term memories are stored.  Interestingly, it’s the hippocampus, which is first damaged when people first experience Alzheimer’s Disease.

What Happens To The Brain When We Have Anxiety?

Your body is primed by the cortisol and norepinephrine, getting your heart rate up, your blood being pushed into muscles, and more air in the lungs.  With all this happening, your body is better able to cope with the impending danger.

After the danger has passed, all this is supposed to go back to normal. 

And there’s the catch.

If you are reacting to dropping a jar, or a car door closing, chances are Miggy is not able to go back to Sleep.  Instead, Miggy remains on alert to some extent while our bodies remain under some level of stress – imagined or real.

Signs Of Anxiety To Be Aware Of:

If you are not sure whether you have anxiety, let’s have a look at some of the reg flags:

  • Is your mind currently racing, looking for what might go wrong next?
  • Do you play the blame game when things go wrong, vs. accepting responsibility?
  • When things go well, do you find some external excuse rather than giving credit to yourself?
  • Do you find it difficult to relax or get to Sleep?

These are some of the signs, but there is a wide range of other symptoms of anxiety.

How Can You Stop Anxiety?

There are so many things you can do to stop anxiety.  You don’t need to try all of the following, but it would pay to try a variety and see what works for you.  In no particular order:

  1. Stop looking at screens for at least an hour before bed, and preferably get some glasses that block out both blue and green lights. Here’s a link to an Australian company that will make up glasses with your prescription included. It’s recommended you wear such glasses once the sun has gone down.
  2. Establish a pre-sleep routine, which might include having a bath, herbal tea, playing some relaxing music.
  3. Get better quality sleep.  Try going to sleep at the same time each night and aim for at least 8 hours of sleep.  Both of the previous steps will help you to get better quality sleep.
  4. Get out in nature, go for a walk, sit and watch the birds, just get outside and let yourself get distracted by nature.
  5. Any other form of exercise will also be a great help.
  6. Distract yourself with movement.  Dance to your favorite tunes.  Another simple thing to do is just to bounce a ball around.  It will help distract Miggy for a while.

If you do have anxiety, try out some of these techniques, and be patient with yourself as well.  Chances are you did not become anxious after just one event, so it may take some time to calm yourself down as well.  But you can do it!

The Bellabee device also has settings for Anti-Anxiety and Improve Sleep, both of which would help you and Miggy with stopping anxiety.