Your Brain On Anxiety

Have you ever wondered why you feel a wash of anxiety flood your body? Your brain has a lot to do with it. Let’s look at how our brain functions through anxiety.

The Function of the Brain

First, let’s talk about the key parts of the anxious brain. We’re only going to look at three parts of the brain: prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hypothalamus. Don’t worry about getting bogged down with these names. I’m going to briefly talk about their function and give an understandable analogy afterward.

When we encounter sensory information (smells, vision, touch, sound, taste), that information is evaluated and organized in our brain. Based on experience, trauma, knowledge, and other factors, the information gets sorted and stored. Think of your prefrontal cortex as the sifter of that information. It gathers data and helps determine what to do with the information. Next is the amygdala. Think of it as being the smoke alarm notifying us of danger. When information comes in that appears dangerous, the amygdala announces the danger. In response, our body floods with stress hormones with the help of the hypothalamus. When the smoke alarm goes off, the brain doesn’t take time to evaluate each situation. It responds by releasing hormones that activate us to react instantly.

Essentially, information comes in, and the brain responds based on our combined experiences and prewiring to set off the alarm. The brain then gets the body activated to respond through a flood of stress hormones.

Healthy Anxiety and the Brain

The cycle typically flows like this:

Triggering Event

Brain Reads and Filters Incoming Information

Brain Flags It for Danger

Body Releases Stress Hormones

Anxiety Leads to Action

The body is designed this way to protect you. You experience anxiety or panic in order to get you mobilized for self-protection. You don’t want to have to take time to evaluate every situation to determine if you need to act to defend yourself. This is a built-in mechanism that kicks in apart from your thoughts in order to allow you to flee danger and protect yourself. This is a healthy, life-saving mechanism.

Healthy Anxiety Responses

Casual Anxiety

Imagine being in your home in the middle of the day, and the smoke alarm goes off. What is your first instinct? Is it to jump out of a window? Probably not. You’re awake. You see your environment and can see there is no smoke or fire in your immediate vicinity. If you’re in a single-family dwelling or a single-story building, you’ll likely check things out to see what triggered the alarm, but you likely won’t jump out a window. I live in the desert southwest, where smoke alarms often go off because of a collection of dust on the sensor or because of a battery dying. Since I’m used to that, I typically don’t experience anxiety when the alarm goes off. Unfortunately, I’ve trained my brain that a smoke alarm often doesn’t mean fire.

Cautionary Anxiety

But what if you live or work in a high-rise in NYC? You’re going to be more hypervigilant with discovering what is going on. Maybe a neighbor’s unit is on fire. You know there are multiple steps to get you to safety, and you don’t want to be trapped in a fire. So, even though you don’t see one in your unit, you’ll still feel a sense of anxiety as you search out the cause of the alarm. You’ve trained your brain to seek out the cause and seek out safety.

Startled Anxiety

Now, imagine the smoke alarm goes off in the middle of the night while you are sleeping. A sense of panic will kick in to wake you up so you can get to safety even if there is no fire. Your senses don’t know yet if there is one, and you’ll quickly move about figuring out your course of action. Again, you’ve trained your brain, and grade school safety awareness did, too, to seek the cause and to seek safety.

Fight-or-Flight Anxiety

And lastly, imagine being in a real fire. You see flames, you smell smoke, you feel the heat of the inferno. Your body will be in full fight or flight to get you moving to safety. Since your brain is prewired to get you to safety without even needing to put thought into it, it floods your body with adrenalin to get you out of there.

These are four examples of healthy responses to a smoke alarm. They started with mild anxiety to full-blown panic. These responses are designed to keep you safe. Anxiety is a good thing that works to keep you alive.

What Happens When Your Brain Triggers Incorrectly?

Now, imagine just sitting at home doing some work, and your body responds in the same way it would if you smelled smoke or saw flames. That’s where the misfiring of the brain happens. It is taking information and reading the triggers as a dangerous, life-or-death situation. The brain responds with a “run for your life” sensation when there is no danger in front of you. We experience chronic anxiety or panic attacks when the brain is setting off the smoke alarm for situations that really aren’t dangerous.

We have trained our brain to believe that specific triggers equal a dangerous situation. For example, in illness anxiety (also called health anxiety), we can train our brain that any twinge we feel in our body must mean we have cancer. It starts with thoughts like, “I wonder what that twinge is?” You might then do a search online and discover one possibility is cancer and jump to the conclusion you have cancer. You feel acute anxiety over this thought, and your body responds with stress hormones. The brain was just taught that twinge = death. So, when you experience a twinge again, your body floods with stress hormones, and you feel panicky. Because you feel panicky, you’re experiencing physical symptoms like a faster heartbeat, sweating, and shaking. You now interpret those sensations as harmful, and the cycle continues.

The brain is gathering information to make sense of it and to respond accordingly. If we draw the conclusion that a trigger, like a twinge in the body, means we might be dying, we are training our brain to assess future twinges to mean we are dying. We’re training the wiring or the circuitry to respond with “danger” over specific triggers.

How Are We Training Our Brain to Stay Anxious?

If you ever took Intro to Psych in school, you might have learned about the concept of classical conditioning with Pavlov’s dogs. He learned through his experiments that pairing a sound with the delivery of food would condition the dogs to respond physiologically to the sound alone. The dogs associated the sound with food, and their body responded by salivating to the sound alone.

We do the same when we respond like there is danger to a trigger when we have no evidence of danger. The brain is setting off the alarm, and we reinforce this circuitry when we continue to respond like there is danger. When you take actions like checking symptoms, calling or texting the doctor repeatedly, getting extra tests run, getting second and third opinions – you’re telling the brain the twinge was so dangerous, you had to call in the experts and sometimes go beyond the experts. We reinforce this false alarm with our own actions, and the cycle continues in a loop.

(Side note here: I challenge you to look up any symptom, and I can pretty much guarantee that you can find a contributing cause is cancer. Try even silly things like eye twitching. Search engines are not your friend when you’re trying to discover the cause of your health issues.)

Taking a Step Toward Helping Your Anxiety

Understanding how the brain functions, how our behaviors reinforce our anxious brain’s cycle, and retraining the brain is a crucial part of treating anxiety. I walk my clients through understanding their own anxiety cycle, learning their triggers, training about how the brain works, and learning ways to retrain the brain. We’ll also look at things they might be doing to reinforce their cycle and learn how to make changes. If you would like to learn more about your own anxiety cycle and learn how to retrain your brain, please reach out to me through my contact form.


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As a Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional, I regularly attend trainings focusing on the best ways to help people suffering from anxiety. Content from this article was gathered from multiple sources from these trainings, including AnxietyTraining.com.

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