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What Causes Anxiety In The Brain

Getting Help For Anxiety

Your Brain on Social Anxiety Disorder

Managing anxiety often involves learning more about whats causing it.

While addressing anxiety early can make treatment easier, strategies exist to help you cope with anxiety however long youve had it.

Therapy is highly effective for learning to manage anxiety. A therapist can help you by taking a closer look at your beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors.

Cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy are two common types of therapy for anxiety.

No matter the cause of your anxiety, theres a coping strategy out there that fits your needs and goals. Learn more about treatment options for anxiety.

Are There Risk Factors For Anxiety

There are multiple factors that create vulnerability to anxiety under stressful circumstances. On a purely psychological level is the ability to manage negative emotions. People lacking emotion regulation skills are at heightened risk of both anxiety and depression. Having a history of adverse life experiences during childhood, such as intense maltreatment or bouts of serious illness, also predisposes people to anxiety. It doesnt change the makeup of genes but it can permanently alter their level of activity so that that the brain is constantly on the lookout for and perceiving potential threats. Perhaps the strongest risk factor for anxiety is having the personality trait of neuroticism. It denotes the degree to which the negative affect system is readily activated. People high in trait neuroticism are dispositionally inclined to find experiences distressing and to worry.

Is Anxiety Caused By A Chemical Imbalance In The Brain

No, anxiety is NOT caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Anxiety is caused by unhealthy behaviors: thinking and acting in unhealthy ways that cause anxiety to elevate above what is considered normal anxiety.

Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. Those who develop anxiety disorder have learned to cope with adversity, uncertainty, and risk in unhealthy ways. Issues with anxiety can be overcome by learning to cope in healthy ways, rather than in overly apprehenvise ways.

With the right information and help, you, too, can overcome issues with anxiety. No one needs to suffer needlessly.

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Anxiety Occurs Due To An Imbalance Between Emotional And Inhibitory Brain Parts

Anxiety is excessive worry or concern. It gets the body ready for action to fight danger. But what if no danger exists? Then, anxiety compels the sufferer to keep running from an invisible monster to an unknown destination. If you are a champion in the anxiety marathon, you know how this makes you unfit in other aspects of your life such as work, school, and relationships. It is common to suffer from both anxiety and depression.

Anxiety is different from fear. Fear is directed towards a specific stimulus when the stimulus is gone, so is the fear. Anxiety does not go away when the stimulus is gone because sometimes there is no stimulus! Particularly with the common generalized anxiety disorder, it is just a vague sense of intense worry and certainty that something dangerous will happen.

What is happening in the brain to magnify these infrequent threats? There seems to be an imbalance between the emotional and thinking inhibitory parts of the brain. Typically, the prefrontal cortex inhibits the emotional amygdala. The amygdala is a brain structure that is always on the lookout for threats so it can quickly react. You need it to be in full operation during a dangerous situation. However, in non-threatening situations, a healthy prefrontal cortex inhibits the lower parts and puts the brakes on the accelerated speed of the amygdala.

What You Should Know About Neurotransmitters In The Brain

14 Ways to Reduce Anxiety Naturally

The neurotransmitters in the brain linked to mood and general well-being include dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid. To get a better sense of how an imbalance in these particular brain chemicals impact mood and even mental function, it helps to take a look at them individually, starting with dopamine. This neurotransmitter is responsible for maintaining energy levels, focus, and even generating movement. As such, it is not uncommon for individuals with a dopamine imbalance to become depressed, lose focus, and even feel lethargic.

As far as severe anxiety and general nervousness, this is where norepinephrine, serotonin, and gamma-aminobutyric acid imbalances often come into the picture. Norepinephrine is associated with the fight or flight response, the physiological response to stressful situations, which can stem from being in dangerous or unfamiliar surroundings, for example. That said, it is quite common for individuals with a norepinephrine imbalance to experience some form of anxiety.

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Who Is Prone To Anxiety

To a large degree, people who are prone to clinical depression are also vulnerable to clinical anxiety. The conditions have many features in common. Chief among them is a history of adverse childhood experience, such as abuse or neglect. The reason is that maltreatment can indelibly alter the stress system so that it is hypersensitive to danger and reacts with an outpouring of alarm signals that overwhelm the capacity for emotion processing. Scoring high on the personality trait of neuroticism also inclines an individual to anxiety. Neuroticism reflects a tendency to respond to stressful experiences most readily and intensely with negative emotions and to perceive threats where they do not exist. In addition, people who lack the skills of emotion regulation are vulnerable to anxiety they can be easily overwhelmed by situations that create uncertainty or stir any negative feelings.

Brain Scans Show Distinctive Patterns In People With Generalized Anxiety Disorder In Stanford Study

This image shows, in red, brain regions with stronger connections to the amygdala in patients with GAD, while the blue areas indicate weaker connectivity. The red corresponds to areas important for attention and may reflect the habitual use of cognitive strategies like worry and distraction in the anxiety patients. For a high-resolution version, click here.

Scrambled connections between the part of the brain that processes fear and emotion and other brain regions could be the hallmark of a common anxiety disorder, according to a new study from the Stanford University School of Medicine. The findings could help researchers identify biological differences between types of anxiety disorders as well as such disorders as depression.

The study published Dec. 7 in the Archives of General Psychiatry, examined the brains of people with generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, a psychiatric condition in which patients spend their days in a haze of worry over everyday concerns. Researchers have known that the amygdala, a pair of almond-sized bundles of nerve fibers in the middle of the brain that help process emotion, memory and fear, are involved in anxiety disorders like GAD. But the Stanford study is the first to peer close enough to detect neural pathways going to and from subsections of this tiny brain region.

Amit Etkin

Michael Greicius

  • Stephanie Pappas

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What Else Should I Ask My Healthcare Provider

If you have an anxiety disorder, ask your provider:

  • Whats the best treatment for me?
  • Do I need medication? What type?
  • How long should I take medication?
  • What type of psychotherapy will work best?
  • What else can I do to manage my symptoms?
  • What other conditions am I at risk for?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

An anxiety disorder can make it difficult to get through your day. Anxiety disorder symptoms include feelings of nervousness, panic and fear. You may also have physical symptoms such as sweating and a rapid heartbeat. But you dont need to live like this. Several effective anxiety disorder treatments are available. Talk to your healthcare provider to figure out your diagnosis and the best treatment plan. Often, treatment combines medications and therapy. Anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants, together with CBT, can help you feel your best.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/17/2020.

References

What Causes Social Anxiety In The Brain

Your Brain on Stress and Anxiety

In March 2020, across the globe we experienced a massive change to life when social restrictions came into force. Some of us thrived in this less hectic environment. Others experienced a deep loss of physical connection with loved ones. The entire experience felt paradoxical in many ways. Hugging and socialising is beneficial for immunity, yet world leaders instructed us to stop it to help us remain healthy.

For many the year caused fear, dread and worry as companies collapsed. People lost jobs, finances became a challenge and support felt distant. Most of us have survived and got through it but some people have thrived. Those that have noticed they feel happier with more time at home. Less rushing around, less meeting the expectations of others and more time alone now face a different struggle as they try to come to terms with going back to normal.

If you have experienced a lifetime of trying to manage social anxiety you might have felt deep relief when they announced the restrictions. No more needing to find excuses, no more letting people down, no more weeks of worry before an event. No more panic about leaving the house. Now, as you feel the anxiety rising as restrictions begin to lift you might wish to consider exploring and managing this anxiety differently. In a way that leaves you feeling like you can breathe.

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Anxiety Disorders Just In Your Head

This was her third trip to the Emergency Department in two days. She had been home watching TV when all of a sudden her heart started racing, she felt her face flush, her hands tingle, and it was hard to catch her breath.

She was scared because she felt like she was dying.

She started crying uncontrollably, making it all the more difficult to breathe. She was frustrated with the emergency room staff because they felt a healthy 20-year-old who had a thorough medical workup completed two days before was not having a heart attack but, rather, an anxiety attack.

The above scenario is not an uncommon one, especially the frustration a person may feel if they believe doctors are not taking their condition seriously or saying its all in your head.

In a way, they are not entirely wrong. Anxiety is all in the head. Heres why:

We all experience some anxiety at different periods in time. Its the brains way of getting us ready to face or escape danger, or deal with stressful situations.

For example, anxiety before exams can make one study more and, hence, do well on a test. However, at times, the anxiety can be quite severe or exaggerated in relation to the actual situation. This can lead to intense physical sensations, anxious thoughts, worries and avoidant behaviors that impact ones life.

An example would be skipping school the day of a test because one is so anxious or having a panic attack to the point that one cant take a test.

Can I Get Too Much Adrenaline

The body is pretty good when it comes to self-limiting adrenaline production. When the threat or emotion passes, the production of adrenaline stops. However, there are some medical conditions, like sleep apnoea or adrenal tumours in which adrenaline overproduction creates a chemical imbalance.

Sometimes, stress and worry can cause your body to release adrenaline when it doesnt need to. For example, when youre trying to get to sleep at night but stressing out about the following day. Its both annoying and uncomfortable, and if stress is prolonged, your health can suffer.

One way to help relieve these feeling is to try and activate your parasympathetic nervous system, known as the rest-and-digest system. This can override the fight or flight response that your body is experiencing in times of stress. Some ways to do this include:

  • deep breathing
  • meditation and mindfulness
  • trying relaxing movement like yoga or tai chi
  • talk to friends or family about whats bothering you so you can switch off at night
  • self-care eating well and getting regular exercise
  • limiting caffeine and alcohol
  • avoid devices before and at bedtime

Our Stress guide has lots of information on practical ways to help de-stress at home, like how to get started on mindfulness or journaling. You can also learn about programs and services we can offer if you need a little extra help.

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How Does Medication Treat Anxiety Disorders

Medications cant cure an anxiety disorder. But they can improve symptoms and help you function better. Medications for anxiety disorders often include:

  • Anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines, may decrease your anxiety, panic and worry. They work quickly, but you can build up a tolerance to them. That makes them less effective over time. Your healthcare provider may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication for the short-term, then taper you off or the provider may add an antidepressant to the mix.
  • Antidepressants can also help with anxiety disorders. They tweak how your brain uses certain chemicals to improve mood and reduce stress. Antidepressants may take some time to work, so be patient. If you feel like youre ready to stop taking antidepressants, talk to your provider first.
  • Beta-blockers, usually used for high blood pressure, can help reduce some of the physical symptoms of anxiety disorders. They can relieve rapid heartbeat, shaking and trembling.

Your healthcare provider will work with you to find the right medication combination and dosage. Dont change the dose without consulting your provider. Theyll monitor you to make sure the medicines are working without causing negative side effects.

Can Stress Bring On Anxiety

Neglect

Anxiety and stress are intimately related anxiety is a reaction to stress. Anxiety is the name we give to the internal sensations of warning generated by the bodys reaction to a mental or physical threat. The sensations are set in motion by the stress response system, whose job is to alert us to and protect us from danger. Without waiting for us to make a conscious assessment of any danger, it swiftly sends out chemical warning signals, such as cortisol and adrenaline, to various organs. The physical discomfort of anxiety is like a bodyguard its job is to protect us by jolting us into action. But it can persist and, by altering the function of neural circuits in the brain, overwhelm the ability to exert rational control.

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If I Feel Nervous All The Time Is It Possible I Have A Chemical Imbalance

According to the Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit academic medical center headquartered in Rochester, MN, experiencing occasional anxiety is not uncommon. After all, such feelings are a byproduct of the mind and body reacting to dangerous, unfamiliar, or stressful situations, all of which can be either real or perceived. Some might even argue that a certain degree of anxiety is essential in that it enables us to stay alert and aware of our surroundings.

That said, severe anxiety, which is characterized by intense, excessive, and persistent worry, is another matter entirely. And these are the feelings that many individuals struggling with social anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder, for example, experience regularly. To contextualize just how prevalent severe anxiety is in America, we need only take a look at a study published by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America . The study found that an estimated 40 million Americans struggle with anxiety so severe that they have to take prescription-based medication, undergo psychotherapy, or both.

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