7 Shocking Things That Happen To Your Brain If You Have Anxiety
If you've ever felt anxious and noticed your thoughts seem out of character, you can't think straight, and you're unusually exhausted, it's not all in your head. Anxiety can affect more of your body than you realize, and there are even a number of shocking ways that anxiety can impact your brain. What's going on with our mental health can affect our physical health and even our cognition, so it should come as no surprise that when you're suffering from anxiety, your brain experiences some changes.
"Anxiety is a mechanism designed to help us 'fight or flee,' so even when we are not in battle, anxiety is a response triggered by much smaller stressors as if we were," neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez tells Bustle. "The brain goes into overdrive protection mode without an enemy or target, which in turn disrupts things we need such as rational thinking and decision making. It's hard to have a clear head when your fighting often imaginary monsters."
Although everyone reacts to their stress and anxiety differently, there are a number of common changes that can occur in your body and brain. Here are seven shocking things that can happen to your brain when you have anxiety., according to experts.
1. Stress Hormones Are Released
When you are anxious, stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released, which can have an impact on the rest of your body. This puts your body into fight or flight mode. "For people with anxiety, this can sometimes translate to experiencing racing thoughts about the situation that provoked anxiety," licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Zainab Delawalla tells Bustle. "Because the brain is so consumed by the threatening stimulus, it is not able to spend resources on other things in the environment, which can be experienced as difficulty concentrating."
2. Your Appetite Is Affected
Anxiety can also affect your appetite, causing you to eat too much or too little, says Dr. Hafeez. Some people may eat more than they usually do when they're anxious to cope with their emotions. However, others lose their appetite, since some of the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as nausea or knots in the stomach, can make food unappetizing, according to Healthline.
When your body is in a fight or flight response, it spends less resources on less crucial activities. "Food intake and digestion are regular maintenance tasks and if faced with a life-threatening stimulus, these are not priorities," says Delawalla. "People with anxiety disorders often experience appetite disturbance or stomach upset for these reasons — their brains are prioritizing how to mitigate the threat and not regulating food intake."
3. You Might Become More Paranoid
Although anxiety and paranoia are two separate conditions, anxiety can lead to paranoid thoughts. "During anxious states, people become wary and distrusting of their own emotions, facts, and allies, thereby alienating and isolating [themselves]," says Dr. Hafeez. If you find this is the case for you, it may be best to speak with a loved one or therapist.
4. Your Breathing Is Disrupted
Many people with anxiety experience abnormal breathing patterns "Something as simple and natural as breathing is interrupted when we are anxious," says Dr. Hafeez. "It's a parasympathetic response, and our bodies collaborate with the brain by heightening its basic functions."
5. Your Rational Thinking May Be Compromised
There's a reason we might jump to extreme conclusions when we are anxious — our emotions tend to override our rational thought. "Clear rational thinking is disrupted in the most level-headed of us," says Dr. Hafeez. "It's because the brain cannot do higher level cognitive things it's designed to when it's busy addressing primitive tasks like fighting or fleeing." If this becomes difficult to manage on your own, a therapist or loved one can help to cope with this symptom.
6. You Might Remember Less
When you suffer from anxiety, the hippocampus ends up shrinking, which can affect how much you remember (LINK? added). "The hippocampus is the part of the brain most responsible for forming new memories," says Delawalla. "A prolonged stress response can damage the neurons in the hippocampus."
7. You Can't Regulate Your Emotions As Well
Chronic anxiety can also lead to changes in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that is important in regulating emotions, specifically through cognitive appraisals. "Cognitive appraisals help determine whether we view uncertain situations as a threat or a challenge," says Dr. Delawalla. "If we view them as threats, we are more likely to engage our 'fight or flight' response, whereas if they are appraised as challenges, we are more likely to tap into healthy coping responses."
Helping to manage your anxiety can help minimize these brain changes and help you overcome any side effects. Reaching out to a therapist or loved one for help could improve these symptoms long-term.