top of page

Is your brain making you anxious?

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

In times of uncertainty, like now (Covid -19 2020) I am certain that having a better understanding of how the brain works and affects behaviour will help you to recognise if you are, maybe silently, suffering from anxiety, stress or worry. Acknowledging this enables us to be open to change our mind and put strategies in place to be in control, find calm and live every day anxiety free. How empowering will that be?

What we do right now, how we feel, how we act can have a far reaching effect on more than just ourselves.

Is it anxiety, stress or worry?

Just take a moment to think about how you are feeling, what you are feeling and where you are feeling it, maybe you have a behaviour that you do such as excess drinking, smoking, gambling, drugs, shopping. What does it stop you doing?

Worry happens in the mind - negative thoughts

Stress happens in the body - our fight/flight/freeze response (physical symptoms)

Anxiety happens in the mind and body.

Anxiety has many forms, whether it be panic, phobias, social anxiety, OCD, post traumatic stress disorder or general anxiety disorder. It is nothing more than a coping mechanism that is attempting to remove us from a perceived threat or dangerous situation. In many ways anxiety it is actually our own internal safety valve when our brain can't meet the moment. What causes anxiety is nothing more complex than stress or “maxed” out stress, either caused by a single event or a build up overtime of smaller events. Overwhelm occurs when we have too much on our plate and more keeps coming, have you ever said “ I can’t cope with this anymore” or “I need to run”. When we have anxiety the brain is reading a situation as dangerous or unsafe and creating a response in your brain and body to remove you from that situation. The problem is you don’t like the anxiety responses as they don’t feel safe. It’s like an alarm bell, but the alarm bell is going off most of the time even when there isn’t any fire. Once this happens it’s like a bad habit. Anything that makes you feel in any way out of control or not safe, the brain/body switches on the anxiety response; even though you may know better and not want it to happen.

The Brain

So to understand this a little bit more let’s have a look at the evolution of the brain, or sometimes known as the triune brain, which is very simply divided into 3 areas

1. The brain stem/hind brain or in evolutionary terms the reptilian brain controls our basic regulatory functions to survive and sustain life: breathing, swallowing, heart rate, blood pressure, consciousness etc

2. The Limbic system or in evolutionary terms the mammalian brain is the emotional centre which has several components for example:

  • The amygdala this processes fear, arouses us, motivates us to act and also triggers anger. It alerts us to danger and activates the fight or flight response. It also attaches emotional content to our memories and plays an important role in how those memories are stored. Memories with a strong emotional meaning tend to stick. It also plays a key role in forming new memories specifically related to fear. Fearful memories are formed after only a few repetitions.

  • The hippocampus plays an essential role of the formation and storing of memories and converts short term into long term memories. These can evoke emotions too as the hippocampus helps us associate memories with various senses. If the hippocampus is damaged and you can’t form new memories your old ones are still intact.

  • The hypothalamus in the context of emotion regulates the autonomic nervous system and connects the hormonal and nervous systems, release of certain hormones such as adrenaline and regulation of blood pressure, body temperature.

  • The thalamus just above the brain stem is like a sensory relay station for everything you see, hear, taste and touch that comes through your nerves, it then redirects them to the appropriate areas of your brain. Smells via the nose, relay to a certain areas of the brain which are close to areas that regulate emotions, which explains why smells can evoke very powerful memories and bring you back to a certain event.

3. The pre-frontal cortex in mammals is at its most advanced in humans and this is what separates us from other mammals. It is involved in higher brain functions, thinking, planning, reasoning, language processing and interpreting and processing inputs from our senses.

There’s a flow of commands between all 3 layers.

Imagine you have a fight/flight/freeze situation - the limbic system can activate the reptilian brain for the heart to beat faster, induces greater production of adrenaline, that is, you have a stress response. For some people their thalamus stays on high alert, activating the stress response with anything remotely reminiscent of the original threat. As there is no concept of time in this area, something that happened say 40 years ago, may feel like it is happening right now, and your memory is based on your interpretation of that event with the information you had at that time and it got imprinted. People get stuck in this habit of anxiety because all the wires got crossed in this area that was never meant to store long-term memories.

Likewise your pre-frontal cortex can influence your reptilian brain if perhaps you see something distressing on the news ( that is not affecting you personally) your cognitive state affects your reptilian state and you respond with a stress response even though there is actually no danger to you.

Is it just our advanced pre-frontal cortex that separates us from other mammals?

What separates Giraffes from humans? because after all we are all mammals.

Every decision the giraffe makes provides an immediate benefit to his life.

If he is hungry he walks over to a tree and starts munching.

If he feels a storm coming on he takes shelter

If he smells or spots a lion he runs away.

He lives in an Immediate Return Environment - because his actions deliver clear and immediate outcomes.

Thousands of years ago when we lived in an immediate return environment, stress and anxiety were useful emotions because they helped us take action in the face of immediate problems.

You haven’t drunk any water today, you feel stressed and dehydrated, you find water, stress is relieved.