You must have heard and read that anxiety has a profound effect on the person’s brain, and that it is all in the mind. But in reality, what exactly happens in the brain when someone gets an anxiety attack?
The feeling on anxiety starts with your sensory receptors (eyes, ears, nose, etc). Suppose when you see someone you love in a life-and-death situation, or you hear stressful news, or the way you feel when someone is stalking you in the middle of the night. When the sensory receptors pick up reasons that could lead to anxiety, it sends a message to the central nervous system.
The nervous system then in turn sends the message to the brain, where the reaction takes place. Before you learn the effect of anxiety on the brain, understand that fear and anxiety is not the same thing. Although, vaguely related, fear is generally caused by an objective form of danger, whereas anxiety is more like the constant nag to worry.
So, when the news reaches the brain through the central nervous system, it goes straight to the thalamus, and from there it branches into two directions. One part of it goes to the part of the brain which would reason it out, and the second goes to the part that is concerned with your memory and also with triggering bouts of anxiety. The second part is known as ‘hippocampus.’
When the news reaches the hippocampus, your brain starts to analyze it in terms of past history. It tries to draw a conclusion whether this sort of news had had elicited an anxious response in the past.
If it is ‘new’ information with no track records, your brain automatically goes into a fight-or-flight mode. Simultaneously, the other part of the brain where the news had earlier branched off to is known as the amygdala, which is generally concerned with emotions and feelings, and if it were to be cut off, you wouldn’t feel fear or anxiety ever.
The amygdala is always alert and perceives things from a threatening point of view. It keeps on sorting through information, and when it comes across any that can cause potent stress and anxiety, it sends a message to the rest of your body triggering them to respond.
The response is generally the physical symptoms associated with anxiety: heart palpitation, sweating, hyperventilation, dizziness and nausea, muscle tension, head ache, and drying on the mouth.
According to an experiment conducted by Jerome Kagan, a Harvard professor of psychology, some people are born predisposed to worry and anxiety. This only makes them more likely to suffer from anxiety disorder later on in life, if they imbibe upon a negative attitude.
Now, that you know what happens in the brain and how it does make you anxious, you should try as much as possible to compartmentalize information according to reason. For instance, when the sensory receptors pick up information that could be a cause to worry about, try to rationalize and look for reasoning to either discard it as a threat or to tackle it, if it is indeed a threat.