What is the Scientific Connection Between Your Brain and Anxiety?

As someone who struggles with anxiety, I can tell you that it feels like you have a defect — like there’s something wrong with you or that you’re wired differently from everyone else. This feeling of being defective is made even more apparent when loved ones around you don’t seem to struggle with anxiety like you do. I often find myself wondering why God gave me such crippling anxiety that impacts me so severely, especially at night.

While I can’t say that these thoughts don’t pop up anymore, I can tell you that I have a new outlook on “being different.” Let me be the first to tell you that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you, and I have the science to back it up. Anxiety is a natural and primal reaction that has existed since the beginning of human existence. Allow me to elaborate…

The Brain 101

I always loved science in high school, but trust me when I say that I’m no expert. That’s why I talked to a licensed clinical psychiatrist who specializes in evidence-based treatment of anxiety to learn all I could about the connection between our brain and anxiety. It starts with understanding the five major parts of our brain:

  1. Cerebrum: controls our thoughts, actions, and five senses
  2. Hippocampus: controls our memory and information that we learn
  3. Prefrontal Cortex: manages our self-control, planning, and organizing skills
  4. Cerebellum: controls balance and movement
  5. Amygdala: controls our fear responses

If you’re not a science person, hopefully, you haven’t completely checked out by now. Trust me, I’m going somewhere with this. Let’s take a look at how the star of the show, the amygdala, impacts anxiety.

Anxiety is Primal

The first people on Earth had so much to worry about in their survival — they had to hunt for food, survive extreme climate conditions, and protect themselves from dangerous predators. To survive against those predators, they had to rely on their amygdala to know when they were in danger. Their amygdala could tell them to fight to stay alive, flee to safety, freeze in place to deceive their predator, or fawn to show predators that they weren’t a threat. Now, we don’t really have animal predators to worry about in our everyday lives, but our amygdala still kicks in to help us survive.

In today’s society, we still fight more or less the same when faced with danger or an anxious situation. We still flee, but instead of fleeing a dangerous animal, we avoid confrontation and run away from things that make us uncomfortable. We still freeze, but instead of freezing to trick big animals into thinking we’re dead, we stumble over our words when giving a speech in front of crowds or suddenly forget how to move when faced with anxiety. Fawning in today’s society involves people-pleasing or going the extra mile so that people don’t see us in a negative light.

See? It’s all connected, and it’s been this way since the prehistoric ages. We’re so evolved from where we as people started, but anxiety exists similarly now as it did then. Except now, we just have new fears and different things to be anxious about.

Final Thoughts

I say all of this to say, there’s nothing wrong with if you have anxiety. It’s a natural, normal response from your brain that impacts your entire body in ways you never considered. When your amygdala is active and anxiety takes over, it cuts off access to the cerebrum and cerebellum, making it harder for us to think clearly or even move. It cuts off access to your hippocampus, meaning it’s harder to remember the trick you learned last time that helped you in the middle of an anxiety attack. Lastly, the amygdala impacts our prefrontal cortex, making it harder for us to make decisions and act like our normal selves.

So, when I say you’re not wired differently, I really mean that. Be sure to give yourself grace and not beat yourself up when you’re wondering why anxiety seems to impact you more than the people around you. Remember, while we are all different people, we all have the same parts of the brain. Be kind to yourself.

“Anxiety is an urgent, deafening thing. No matter how many logical reasons you have to remain happy or positive, when it is present, you can hear nothing else.” – Beau Taplin

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