While we all feel anxious from time to time, how anxiety changes the brain can be pretty profound and surprising. From laying down new neural pathways, to inciting unhealthy coping responses, there are quite a few surprising ways unchecked anxiety can begin to leave its mark on your mind, body, and even your personality.
That's because "our bodies [and] minds are designed to deal with short-term threats," Dr. Steve Levine, board certified psychiatrist and founder and CEO of Actify Neurotherapies, tells Bustle. "When chronically stressed by anxiety, our protective mechanisms turn against us and result in damage, including to important brain communication circuits." While it's not a change you can see, obviously, you might feel these changes in the form of increased anxiety, or other mental health issues — such as depression.
"Fortunately, healthy activities like exercise or treatment in the form of talk therapy or medications can reverse some of these changes and restore a healthy balance," Dr. Levine says. "But it argues for addressing anxiety as early as possible." If you feel anxious, or think your anxiety might be getting out control, don't hesitate to seek help. In doing so, you can prevent some of the changes listed below from happening over time. But more importantly, you'll be starting down the road to better handling your anxiety, and feeling better in general.
You May Forget How To Calm Down
When anxiety has taken over your brain — and your worried thoughts are the loudest thoughts you're having — it can begin a cycle where you essentially lose the ability to self-regulate, or calm yourself down.
"We need to be able to self-regulate our bodies when we are stressed but if we are constantly in a state of anxiety, we are ... not able to calm [ourselves] down when stressful situations come our way," Russell says. It's a vicious cycle, and one that may need to be broken with the help of loved ones, a professional, or anxiety medication.
You May Develop Other Mental Health Issues
If you're anxious more often than not, it can certainly lead to other mental health issues down the road, simply due to the fact you aren't taking the time to manage your symptoms in a healthy way.
As Russell says, "Untreated anxiety increases your chances of depression or substance abuse," since you might try to self-medicate, in order to calm down. And while understandable, that's definitely not a sustainable or healthy way to deal with the issue.
Anxiety can be managed with the help of a therapist, with medication, and sometimes even with something simpler, such as reaching out to friends and family for support.
The Brain Will Lay Down "Anxious" Neural Pathways
Since your brain is similar to a muscle, it can actually be "trained" to act a certain way. "Brains are similar to muscles in that the more you use specific neural pathways, the more strengthened those routes become," Brigitte Gordon, DNP, PMHNP-BC, a psychiatric doctor of nursing, tells Bustle. "This is true for an anxious individual's brains as well. The more anxious you are about something or anxious about many little things in general, the more your brain will go back to those same anxious thoughts, whether triggered or unsolicited, because that is the neural path that your brain automatically wants to take." But the good thing is, you can also train your brain to go a different, less-anxious way.
Your Initial Anxiety Can Lead To More Intense Anxiety
Another case for treating anxiety ASAP — even if it doesn't feel that intense — is the fact anxiety can start to grow and eventually lead to more anxiety. For this, Gordon points to the "'kindling hypothesis,' which was first explored in the 1960s by Goddard and associates by experimenting with small electric shocks that subsequently made larger changes to the brain. The same may be true for anxiety — the more someone remains anxious and goes untreated, there may be a cumulative effect that results in a larger, crippling anxiety."
So the takeaway here is that you shouldn't hesitate to seek help for anxiety, especially if it feels like it's getting worse. "In my experience, the sooner anxiety is faced head-on, whether that be with therapy and/or medication management, the better the long-term outcome," Gordon says.
You Might Not Be Able To Sleep
If you've experienced anxiety, then you know it can make it tough to fall sleep. And that can, in turn, make anxiety worse. As Gordon says, "Maybe one of the most detrimental changes that anxiety may have on the brain is the toll it takes on sleep. Sleep is one of the most underrated anxiolytics out there." Which essentially means it has a calming effect.
Without sleep, anxiety can quickly spiral. "One of the major ways anxiety affects sleep is that it may prevent us from reaching REM sleep, the powerful dream-state that satiates our deep need for rest," she says. "Without reaching REM we are left vulnerable to a host of detrimental outcomes, including, worsening mental health."
You May Become Stuck On "High Alert"
The whole point of anxiety is that it serves as a signal to alert you to danger, and prepares you to either fight or flee. (You know, the whole "fight-or-flight" response.)
The thing is, when anxiety is left untreated, our brains can become stuck in that mode — even when nothing threatening or dangerous is actually happening.
"Another word for this is the 'arousal' in your brain [is high] (not sexual arousal, but psychological arousal)," Erin Carpenter, LCSW, owner of Thrive Counseling, tells Bustle. "This means your brain is on high alert for danger, scanning the environment for possible threats. This all happens on a [subconscious] level of course, so you may not be aware of it happening. But you will be aware that, over time, you will become more reactive to stressors, and find it difficult to come back to a calm 'baseline.'"
Your Cells Can Begin To Malfunction
When your brain is in a constant state of stress, it may start to change your brain on a cellular level. As Carpenter says, "There is increasing evidence from studies that chronic untreated anxiety can trigger stem cells to malfunction, which creates very rigid connections between two brain areas (the hippocampus and the amygdala), which leads to your brain being in a near-constant state of the 'fight-or-flight' response."
Your Fears Can Begin to Reinforce Themselves
"Some people's anxiety tends to be triggered by specific things, such as with phobias or social anxiety," psychotherapist Brennan C. Mallonee, LMHC, tells Bustle. "The brain sees the trigger as something dangerous and tells us to stay away by making us feel anxious." And in dangerous situations, that can obviously be a good thing.
But an anxious brain can take this healthy reaction, and allow it to run amok — thus reinforcing the fear. "For example, someone with social anxiety might avoid parties or other social events," Mallonee says. "While this can decrease anxiety in the short-term, in the long-term it reinforces the brain's assessment that the trigger is dangerous. A person with social anxiety who avoids parties will eventually become more and more anxious at the thought of going to a party."
That's why therapists often tell their patients to face their fears, or help them work through them with things like exposure therapy. "Paradoxically, the best way to fight anxiety is often to gradually expose ourselves to our triggers in order to teach our brain that we're capable of handling them," she says. "Over time, our brain adjusts to the new information and learns that we don't have to be so anxious about the original trigger because we have the tools to handle the situation."
Parts Of Your Brain Can Shrink
Believe it or not, anxiety can actually change the very structure of your brain. "The hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that turns anxiety-provoking events into memories, actually can shrink due to untreated anxiety," therapist Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW tells Bustle. "Anxiety can cause the volume of gray matter in the brain to decrease, as well as the size and connectivity of the amygdala."
Over Time, Other Bodily Systems Can Become Damaged
With severe, chronic anxiety, side effects can begin to trickle down, and effect others parts of your body, too. "Anxiety typically prompts responses from multiple body and brain systems," Dr. Levine says. "For example, the neuroendecrine system is a two-way communication pathway that involves the brain telling the adrenal glands to release stress hormones, which in turn prepare the body to deal with a threat as well as prompt other adaptation in the brain."
When the adrenal glands are in over-drive, it can start to have an impact on your immune system, "and even the expression of genes to change behavior," he says. "In the brain, there is a communication circuit between an area called the prefrontal cortex (involved in higher level thinking, planning, organizing) and the amygdala (fear center), and anxiety can alter this circuitry. If anxiety is untreated and becomes chronic, these systems may become unbalanced and damaged."
That's not to say that everyday anxiety will damage your body. It is, however, a good idea to find ways to better cope with an ongoing anxiety disorder, before it starts to drag you down. Since ongoing anxiety can start to create changes in the brain, and even lead to unhealthy habits and other disorders, the sooner you can seek treatment, the better.