11 Shocking Things That Happen To Your Brain When You Suffer From Even Mild Anxiety
If you have an anxiety disorder, then you already know how it can impact your brain, cause you to worry, and totally mess with your day. But did you know even mild cases of anxiety can affect you, in much the same way? Chemically speaking, any type of anxiety can alter your brain, in some pretty surprising ways. But it can also affect you psychologically — perhaps more than you'd think.
But it's important to note how mild anxiety is different from regular nerves. "Anxiety is a natural human response that serves a purpose: to keep us safe. However, sometimes your brain is more sensitive and perceives danger when it does not exist," licensed psychologist Crystal I. Lee, PsyD tells Bustle. "Your brain mistakenly floods itself with norepinephrine and cortisol, which triggers anxious thoughts and feelings when they're not useful."
That's why you might be sitting at work, and suddenly boom — you're filled with worry. And thanks to stress chemicals, like cortisol, going haywire in your brain, you might even struggle to think clearly, or make decisions. It can be intense for some people, which is why therapy is always a good idea, as well as taking care of great yourself — by exercising, eating well, and sleeping at least eight hours — so your symptoms can be less intrusive.
Here are a few shocking ways anxiety can affect you, according to experts.
1. Cortisol Levels Can Rise And Literally Change Your Brain
Cortisol is a hormone that's released when you're stressed, and it's necessary in small doses to keep you safe. (The whole "fight-or-flight" thing.) But if your life is one big cortisol high, due to anxiety, it can cause damage over time.
"Anxiety produces excessive cortisol, which can kill, damage, shrink, and stop the generation of new neurons in the hippocampus," Dr. Bryan Bruno, medical director at Mid City TMS, a New York-based transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) center, tells Bustle. "The hippocampus is critical for learning, memory, and emotional regulation, as well as shutting off the stress response after a stressful event is over."
2. It May Eventually Lead To Other Disorders, Like Depression & Dementia
If you've had anxiety for a while, even if it's mild, it may be in your best interest to seek therapy as way of feeling better now, but also to prevent other issues down the road. "Pathological anxiety is associated with structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex (PFC), [areas of the brain] which may account for the increased risk of developing psychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia," says Bruno. So the sooner you can seek treatment, the better
3. Anxiety Can Affect Your Decision-Making Skills
Ever wondered why you struggle with making decisions? Well, it may have something to do with your mild (but ongoing) case of anxiety. "Anxiety ... shrinks the prefrontal cortex," says Bruno. "This negatively affects decision making, working memory, and control of impulsive behavior."
4. And It Can Make You Less Productive
When all your energy is going towards anxious thoughts — even if you have a mild case of them — it can start to affect other areas of your life, like your level of productivity. "When we have anxiety, we are less productive and successful in many of our daily tasks, and we can forget easily," Dr. Josh Klapow, psychologist and host of The Web radio show, tells Bustle. That's because your brain is sort of like a computer. It only has so much power to go around. And if it's all used up coping with anxiety, other functions may fall short.
5. Anxiety Can Make You Feel Less Connected, Emotionally
Similarly, when your brain is overrun with anxiety, it can make it difficult to connect with others, because your focus is elsewhere. "We have a harder time connecting emotionally because our body and minds are so focused on trying to function," Klapow says. "When we are anxious our emotional guard is up, we are very much focused on protecting ourselves, and we tend to be preoccupied with the distress as a result. It becomes quite challenging to be vulnerable, to feel any other emotions, or to allow any other emotions to be displayed. So we feel less connected."
6. Your Brain Might Search For "Reasons" To Be Anxious
With mild anxiety, your brain can tell something's off, so it will start to search for "reasons" to be anxious, to justify all that worry. "The anxiety sticks to any situation," says Klapow. "We may start worrying about what you will have for dinner, if you'll have a good day at work, if you can pay the bills, etc. You simply start finding places to let the anxiety land. The result is a loop of anxiousness placed on every day tasks, which then in turn cause more anxiousness."
7. You'll See Everything In A Negative Light
"Anxiety can cause you to think very negatively," says Lee. "Instead of interpreting situations as neutral or positive, it's interpreted as negative, dangerous, or harmful." So even though you're perfectly safe, the world around you may not seem that way.
8. And You Might Feel Guarded As A Result
"Anxiety has the potential to change the way a person thinks," says Bruno. "What some see as a normal interaction could be perceived as a threat by someone who suffers from anxiety. This misperception could have the unintended consequence of being cold, guarded, or nervous around strangers." So even if you want to open up and be friendly, mild anxiety may be causing your brain to hold back.
9. Anxiety Can Cause You To Ruminate
Ever find yourself getting stuck in a worry loop? "You may keep thinking about that one conversation you had with your boss last week, and you just keep replaying in over and over and over," Dr. Mike Dow, psychotherapist and author of the upcoming Heal Your Drained Brain tells Bustle. "This is releasing brain draining stress hormones — adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol — in your brain." And thus the worry can cause you to get stuck, Dow says, like a car with tires spinning in the mud.
10. You Might Have Black And White Thinking
Thanks to those brain chemicals, anxiety can cause polarized thinking, too. "[Anxious people] can sometimes see the world in polarized, black-or-white, all-or-nothing terms, which can lead to more anxiety," says Dow. "For example, a university student who thinks 'If I don't get an A plus, then I'm a complete failure.' This obviously leads to more anxiety."
11. Your Brain May Become Prone To Addiction
"Chronic anxiety reduces levels of critical neurotransmitters, especially serotonin and dopamine," says Bruno. "Low levels of either of these neurotransmitters can leave you depressed, and more prone to addictions." This may be because you're craving a way to feel better.
Which is why therapy and other treatments are a great idea, even if you're just suffering from mild anxiety. Not only do you deserve to feel better, but experts suggest to do whatever you can to keep your brain healthy, for years to come.