7 Fascinating Things Anxiety Does To Your Brain, According To Experts
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.
“These chemicals give us the fight or flight reaction, boosting our reflex time, perception, and speed,” Dr. Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, a sleep, diet and nutrition expert, tells Bustle.
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
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
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 Mayo Clinic, 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
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 Mayo Clinic, 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
Part of the reason that anxiety can lead to depression is that it impacts your serotonin levels.
“Anxiety depletes the brain mineral, magnesium, which is responsible for managing cortisol and the production and function of the feel good hormone serotonin. This can lead to an increased risk of depression,” Dr. Dean says.
For this reason, some people advocate for magnesium supplements as a way to reduce anxiety, and there’s even recent studies validating magnesium as a potential option to help manage anxiety.
7. It Can Impact Your Thyroid
Anxiety can also affect your thyroid, which has implications for your hormonal balance.
“Anxiety can aggravate an existing thyroid condition by releasing too much cortisol which interferes with thyroid hormone production,” Dean says.
Because the thyroid controls many of the hormones dispersed the brain, Dean says that “this can change the hormonal balance in the brain and further exacerbate anxiety.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, other symptoms of potential thyroid issues are fatigue, increased sensitivity to cold, and constipation.
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.