7 Fascinating Things Anxiety Does To Your Brain, According To Experts

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Anxiety is more common than you may think, and it can have interesting effects on your brain. About 20% of Americans suffer from the mental illness, according to the Anxiety And Depression Association of America. Impacting about 40 million Americans, it is the most common mental illness in the country. However, despite it being such a common condition, there are still many things that people don’t know about anxiety’s impact on the brain.

“Anxiety is the brain’s way of alerting us of danger,” Dr. Alex Anastasiou, a psychiatrist specializing in anxiety treatment, tells Bustle. When the brain thinks you are in danger, it triggers the release of hormones, which include adrenaline and cortisol.

When the situation is over, the hormones are supposed to go back to their normal levels. However, anxiety can cause you to constantly feel threatened and lead to an excess of these hormones. Anastasiou says that cortisol in particular can affect everything from decision-making to memory.

Although stress serves a purpose and can help us react in dangerous situations, too much anxiety can impact our brain in unexpected ways. To learn more about how anxiety affects the brain, experts describe what they wish you knew about America’s most common mental illness.

1. It Impacts Your Short-Term Memory

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If you find yourself feeling forgetful during anxious periods, there’s a scientific explanation. Anastasiou says that the increased cortisol from chronic anxiety shrinks the hippocampus, which he describes as the “memory center of the brain.”

Anxiety’s effect on the hippocampus is well documented, and constant anxiety can lead to forgetfulness and confusion. It’s important to note that this typically happens for chronic anxiety, and not just occasionally periods of stress.

2. It Can Make You More Impulsive

People can make snap decisions in a bout of anxiety. This is, in part, because the cortisol's effect on the prefrontal cortex. Anastasiou says that cortisol disengages the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of our brain responsible for helping us make decisions.

“This can lead to impulsive behaviors, poor decision making and irritability,” Anastasiou says.

So next time you’re feeling anxious, it might be a good idea to put off making any big decisions.

3. It Can Lead To Depression

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Anxiety and depression are two conditions that, while different, often go hand in hand.

“Anxiety can often lead to symptoms of depression,” Anastasiou says.

According to the MayoClinic, depression can commonly be triggered by an anxiety disorder, and anxiety is typically a symptom of depression. These conditions also share similar treatments — primarily psychological counseling. If you are having difficulties coping with symptoms of depression or anxiety, it may be time to seek out professional help.

4. Your Anxiety Could Be Influenced By How You Were Raised

There are many factors that determine if a person suffers from anxiety, ranging from environmental to genetic. Many popular studies, including a 2018 study published in Child Development, show that the way you were raised could play a major role in your anxiety.

“Studies have shown that nurturing mothers have babies with more cortisol receptors, which stick to cortisol and dampen the stress response,” Anastasiou says. “Negligent moms raised children who became more sensitive to stress in life.”

He says these these are called “epigenetic changes,” which means that they impact the way that genes are expressed without changing the actual genetic code. These changes can actually be passed down, which, according to Anastasiou, means that “one individuals' stressful experiences can affect future generations down the road.”

5. It Can Cause Insomnia

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There’s nothing worse than getting anxious at night and finding it impossible to fall asleep.

“Anxiety causes insomnia by activating the sympathetic nervous system as seen during the fight-or-flight response. This alters our heart rate, breathing and brain waves affecting the quality and duration of sleep,” Anastasiou says.

According to the MayoClinic, other symptoms of anxiety include feeling nervous, an increased heart rate, and breathing rapidly. So it’s not just in your head — there’s a scientific reason behind sleepless nights when you’re battling anxiety.

6. It Can Impact Your Serotonin Levels

"Serotonin is one of the body's 'feel good' chemicals," psychotherapist Avery Neal, M.A., LPC. previously told Bustle. "It affects mood, aggression, sex-drive, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory, the desire to socialize and more."

So an imbalance in serotonin levels can alter your mood. And according to recent research from University of Cambridge, some people are at a greater risk for developed anxiety and depression due to the way our serotonin transporter gene interacts with our environment.

7. It Impacts How Sensitive Your Amygdala Is

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Since your amygdala works with the rest of your brain to process and store emotions, for people with anxiety disorders, the amygdala may be extra sensitive. According to Harvard Medical School, "it overreacts to situations that aren't really threatening, inadvertently triggering the brain circuits that provoke an emergency stress response."

So in the long-term, anxiety will be linked with these memories that are related to fake dangers, and the brain will essentially make up its own fears.

From releasing hormones to triggering insomnia, anxiety can have wide-ranging, and sometimes fascinating, effects on your brain. If you're feeling consistently anxious, don't hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional.

Editor's Note: This piece was updated from its original version on July 3, 2019 to meet Bustle's editorial standards.