How Stress and Anxiety Affect the Brain

July 26, 2018

stressed and anxious woman

If you’ve ever been pulled over by the police or have had to give a speech in front of a large crowd, you’re probably familiar with stress and anxiety in some form or another. These emotions can trigger not only a mental response, but a physical one too. While some level of stress and anxiety is actually normal and healthy, these feelings in excess can severely impact a person’s daily life – not to mention their health.

The Difference Between Stress and Anxiety

We’ve all heard the terms “stress” and “anxiety” used interchangeably. The issue with this is that stress and anxiety are actually different sensations. When you feel stress, it’s because of a known source – you’re on a tight deadline or the kids just won’t listen. This stress might manifest in feelings of anger, sadness, or irritability, as well.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a specific feeling of fear and/or dread. It may not have a known trigger either. People with an anxiety disorder will oftentimes wake up feeling anxious for no apparent reason. Anxiety can also stem from chronic stress, as well. Someone whose body has a consistent surge of stress hormones running through it is at a higher risk for developing generalized anxiety.

What Happens in the Brain When You’re Stressed or Anxious

There are two parts of the brain that are thought to be key players in the production and processing of anxiety – the amygdala and the hippocampus.

“The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that is believed to be a communications hub between the parts of the brain that process incoming sensory signals and the parts that interpret these signals. It can alert the rest of the brain that a threat is present and trigger a fear or anxiety response.

The emotional memories stored in the central part of the amygdala may play a role in anxiety disorders involving very distinct fears, such as fears of dogs, spiders, or flying. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that encodes threatening events into memories.” (National Institute of Mental Health).

Related: Surprising Anxiety Symptoms

Once the brain has encountered a threat (whether actual or perceived), it releases a surge of chemicals, like cortisol and norepinephrine. These chemicals give us a natural boost in reflex time, perception, and speed. They cause our hearts to pump faster in order to get more blood and oxygen circulating through our bodies; we essentially go into “survival mode.”

What Stress and Anxiety do to the Brain Over Time

This survival response is helpful and necessary when we encounter a real threat, but in excess, can cause long-term damage to our bodies. The effects of chronic stress have been linked to a weakened immune system, weight gain, and heart disease, among other issues. But new research is finding a possible correlation between prolonged stress and anxiety, and structural degeneration of the hippocampus and impaired functioning of the prefrontal cortex. This means that the wear and tear caused to the brain by chronic stress or anxiety could be tied to an increased risk of depression and dementia.

RELATED: How to Manage Anxiety Without Medication

The good news is that some of the damage incurred from chronic stress and anxiety is “not completely irreversible,” according to some experts. It was long believed that once a brain lost volume, it was gone forever, but we now know that’s not entirely true. Our brains are plastic, meaning they’re capable of change. This plasticity allows our brains some degree of regrowth and regeneration.

The best way, however, to protect your brain and body from the effects of chronic stress and anxiety is to find a way to manage it before it begins to affect your health. Luckily, there are many different treatment options for these conditions. If you’d like to learn more about Neurocore’s drug-free anxiety, stress programs, or our at-home program, give us a call at 800.600.4096.

Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. (2016, January 21). Chronic stress, anxiety can damage the brain, increase risk of major psychiatric disorders. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 19, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/01/160121121818.htm
Henry, Alan. (2013, November 20). “What Anxiety Does to Your Brain and What You Can Do About It.” Retrieved from https://lifehacker.com/what-anxiety-actually-does-to-you-and-what-you-can-do-a-1468128356
Singal, Jesse. (2016, March 13). “For 80 Years, Young Americans Have Been Getting More Anxious and Depressed, and No One Is Quite Sure Why.” Retrieved from https://www.thecut.com/2016/03/for-80-years-young-americans-have-been-getting-more-anxious-and-depressed.html
16 replies
  1. Denise DeRose
    Denise DeRose says:

    I was a healthy 64 yr old woman until this anxiety took over my life. I do not understand it. The Dr has put me on buspirone and hydroxyzine. After a month of taking it I tried to get off it by cutting my dosage in half. After just one day of doing that the anxiety is back full force. I do not know what the cause is that is doing this to me. I was never worried about anything because I know it does not change a thing. My pain meds have been cut and I had to get off my sleeping pill that I have been taking for 6 yrs because it is a benzipine. I don’t know if all these changes to my medicine caused this or I was diagnosed with sleep apnea and after having double dilated surgery I had another test done at a sleep study place and they say I no longer had sleep apena. I believed it until I started waking again 3-4 times a night. I am now back on my Cpap machine. I hope this is not going to stay for the rest of my life. Thanks for listening.

    Reply
    • Neurocore Brain Performance Centers
      Neurocore Brain Performance Centers says:

      Thanks for sharing your story with us, Denise! We understand that anxiety can be a daily battle, but know that you’re not suffering alone! There are so many factors behind why a person may be feeling anxious, try to stay hopeful that you’ll pinpoint your triggers and find a treatment plan that works for you. And know that you’re always welcome to give us a call.

      Reply
    • Anon
      Anon says:

      Hey Denise,

      Sorry to hear about your situation. I am battling a similar issue and my doctor has put me on hydroxyzine. I also wake up 3-4 times during the night. My doctor says regular exercise and meditation is the key. I am 26 and although stressed, never thought such a thing will affect me, but it did. Due to this scare of triggering anxiety, I had stopped living and enjoying my life. Eventually, I mustered up some courage and slowly entered the world again. Although, me not living or being able to live enough also stresses me out. I have a similar worry, where I think that this thing will stick with me for the rest of my life. I am confident to fight it with all my might though. There would be some temporary setbacks, but eventually, I have to beat this.

      Sending good vibes your way. Hope you get better soon.

      Reply
    • Neurocore Brain Performance Centers
      Neurocore Brain Performance Centers says:

      Hi Val! An anxiety disorder is broadly categorized as excessive nervousness, fear, and/or worry. What’s tricky though is that symptoms can manifest in ways that may not seem like anxiety on the surface, like numbness or tingling. So your symptoms could definitely be stemming from anxiety. The good news is that there are many ways to treat anxiety! If you’d like to learn more about our program, just give us a call at 800.600.4096.

      Reply
  2. Max
    Max says:

    Hello, I wish to get the source for this article, but the link to NIHM doesn’t work. It would be nice if it was updated. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Neurocore Brain Performance Centers
      Neurocore Brain Performance Centers says:

      Thanks for pointing that out, Max! It looks like NIMH took down the page without a redirect. We removed that link, have just reached out to NIMH, and linked another study that helps support our point. 🙂

      Reply
  3. Zahraa
    Zahraa says:

    Hello,
    Please help me to explain scientifically what happens to the brain when I am feeling anxious about my tests
    I mean to clarify more for me what happens to the neurons an d cells in the brain during anxiety!
    Than you!

    Reply
  4. Dan
    Dan says:

    I need help I am 20 and I feel this this kind headache like my is beating and all my body shakes inside I feel so much discomfort sometimes my head becomes heavy sometimes so I was recommended bromazepam drug and I get better when ever I use it but whenever I don’t use it the crazy feelings comes back. I think I am getting addicted I need help.

    Reply
  5. Olaf
    Olaf says:

    Hello, I am suffering from GAD (Generalized anxiety disorder) for 5 years now. Starting with a Panik attacks because I could not swallow down food (EoE autoimmune decease), it developed over about 7 month to GAD. Then finally after got through of several doctors, one told me to see a Phycologist. He diagnosed my suffering already for 7 month of GAD.
    Somatic symptoms reach from cold and hot flashes, over lump in the throat, stiff neck, tickling in the skin, feeling burned skin, etc. I got Xanax and Lyrica (600mg for about 3 years). Now I am almost completely back.

    What did I do? I changed my diet, to take out all processed food, basically only veggies, nuts, some fruits, with fatty fishes (Omega 3) clean meet with a lot of fats. A high fat diet so to speak. Then I did PMR (Progressive muscle relaxation) a lot of sports. But actually only two things really worked, high OMEGA 3 intake 2-3 gram EPA: DHA 2:1 ratio. And I slept on ice packs at night to lower my brain activities and get rid of the nightmares. So if this an inflammation of the brain it makes sense.

    Reply
    • Neurocore Brain Performance Centers
      Neurocore Brain Performance Centers says:

      Thanks so much for sharing your story, Olaf! It’s admirable how much work you’ve put into finding a treatment routine that works for you. You’re also always welcome to give us a call at 800.600.4096 if you’re interested in our med-free program.

      Reply
  6. Vincent L Taylor
    Vincent L Taylor says:

    I have been suffering from severe social anxiety from childhood. I researched for the treatments and I found out this blog at E-Care Behavioral Health Institute that it is that chronic stress that you mentioned that triggers the anxiety when we get in new situations.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *