All things considered, anxiety is a natural and healthy response to an external stimulus. During times of extraordinary situation (i.e. an unfamiliar person or sound, giving a speech, flying, being in an accident), we should be in a heightened or aroused state as a normal response. Typically, when the stressful episode is over, we are expected to return back to mental and physiological balance, as most healthy people do.
Anxiety becomes unhealthy when it spills over into your normal, everyday life. People with anxiety disorder feel unease and panic even when experiencing or doing normal tasks (like leaving the house or grocery shopping). With clinical anxiety, the person is producing the same physiological chemical reaction in their body as if they are in a threatening situation.
If you are experiencing highly charged and emotional stressful events repetitively and continually within a short period of time, your body can turn on its stress response over and over again. A problem occurs when the body turns on its stress response but can’t turn it off. Your survival response mechanisms are always activated and can stay that way for longer period of time than it is actually needed. When a person is in constant survival mode, they are always living in a heightened mode and are continually prepared for emergency. The brain and the whole body are always highly stimulated.
What Triggers Anxiety
When your senses feel or pick up a threat like a loud sound or noise, a scary situation, or a creepy feeling, the information or stimuli takes two different routes through the brain.
When surprised, startled or alarmed, the brain automatically engages an emergency hotline to its amygdala (fear center). Once the amygdala is activated, it sends the equivalent of an all-points bulletin that alerts other brain structures. The result is the classic fear response such as rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, increased blood pressure and a burst of adrenaline. All these responses occur before the brain is even conscious of having smelled or touched anything. The body’s response is very fast so that before you know why you’re afraid, you already are.
The High Road
After the immediate fear response is activated, it is now time for the conscious mind to initiate. Rather than traveling immediately to the amygdala, some sensory data takes a more roundabout route. The information is first processed in the thalamus (the processing hub for sensory cues) and then goes to the cortex (the outer layer of brain cells). The brain’s cortex analyzes the raw information transmitted by your senses and makes a decision on whether they require a fear response. If the conveyed stimuli do require the fear response, the cortex then signals the amygdala of a potential threat. The body is then put on alert.
By putting the brain and body on alert, the amygdala activates a series of changes in your brain chemicals and hormones that places your body in anxiety mode.
Increase in Stress Hormone
During stressful events, it is difficult to remember details of what is happening when asked to recall them later. When reacting to signals from the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus, the adrenal glands pump out high levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). Too much cortisol short-circuits the cells in the hippocampus. This makes it difficult to organize the memory of a trauma or stressful experience. During this time, your memories lose their context and become fragmented.
The body’s sympathetic nervous system, responsible for heart rate and breathing, shifts into overdrive. This results to your heart beating faster, your blood pressure rises, your breathing quickens and your lungs hyperventilate. Sweat also increases, and even the nerve ending on the skin tingle into action, creating goose bumps.
Fight, Flight or Fright
Adrenaline is released to the muscles as the body prepares to flight or flee (fight or flight response). The senses go into hyper-alert mode and it takes into account every detail of the surroundings and anticipating for new potential threats.
To conserve energy, all unnecessary bodily functions are shutdown during stressful conditions. The brain stops thinking about the pleasure response and shifts its focus to identifying new possible dangers. To make sure that no energy is wasted on digestion, the body will sometimes respond by emptying the digestive tract through urination, defecation or involuntary vomiting.
What Happens When You Are Stressed
1. Sights and sounds
The thalamus first processes auditory and visual stimuli. It then filters the incoming cues and shunts them either directly to the amygdala or to the appropriate parts of the cortex in the brain.
2. Smells and touch sensations
Olfactory and tactile stimuli bypass the thalamus altogether, taking a shortcut directly to the amygdala. This is why smells often evoke stronger memories or feelings than do sights or sounds.
The thalamus (the hub for sights and sounds), breaks down incoming visual cues by size, shape and color, and auditory cues by volume and dissonance. It then signals the appropriate parts of the brain cortex.
The cortex gives raw sights and sounds meaning enabling the brain to become conscious of what it is seeing or hearing. One region, the prefrontal cortex, may be vital to turning off the anxiety response once a threat has passed.
The amygdala (the emotional core of the brain), has the primary role of triggering the fear response. Information that passes through the amygdala is tagged according to emotional significance.
6. Bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST)
The BNST perpetuates the fear response, causing the longer-term unease typical of anxiety. This continuing and long-term response contrasts with the amygdala, which sets off an immediate burst of fear.
7. Locus ceruleus
The locus ceruleus, receiving signals from the amygdala, is responsible for initiating many of the classic anxiety responses such as sweating, rapid heartbeat, increased blood pressure, and pupil dilation.
This is the brain’s memory center, which is critical to storing the raw information coming in from the senses, along with the emotional baggage attached to the data during their trip through the amygdala.
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