What's happening in our brains when we are anxious?

A Neuroscientist would tell you that anxiety weakens the connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex . When the amygdala alerts the brain to danger, the prefrontal cortex should kick in and help you come up with a rational, logical response. But, when we experience anxiety, this doesn’t happen. The connections within our brains are weakened and so its very hard for us to rationalise our experience and respond to it in a healthy and logical way. We have no control over this, which can sound quite scary.

But,  anxiety is actually our bodies way of keeping us safe.  When we experience anxiety, it triggers our bodies in to a 'fight-flight-freeze' response, and prepares our body to react because it feels under threat. I'm sure some of you may have heard about the 'fight-flight-freeze' response. Its an involuntary physiological change that happens in our body and mind when we feel threatened. (For ease, I shall refer to it as the 3 F's, going forward).

To put it simply, its our body’s automatic, built-in response system designed to protect us from threat or danger.  An example of this could be when you hear the words, “look out!” You are going to move, fast (flight mode). Or, another example could be if you were confronted by an angry dog, we would (hopefully) stay perfectly still until they left us alone (freeze mode). It would be the best way we know how to protect ourselves. In both cases, your system demonstrates its effectiveness at protecting you from danger.

So lets reiterate:

  • Fight: facing any perceived threat aggressively.
  • Flight: running away from the danger.
  • Freeze: unable to move or act against a threat.

Now, you may well be wondering what all this has to do with anxiety?!  But, anxiety triggers this response within us, as I have mentioned above. So this '3 F' system results in changes in our bodies that help us get ready to defend ourselves.  Lets think back for a moment about what we covered in the first blog a few weeks ago...

  • A Rapid heartbeat and rapid breathing are symptoms of anxiety, but our brain is being triggered by a perceived threat and so the rapid heartbeat, or rapid breathing is our bodies way of making sure that enough blood and oxygen are circulated to our essential organs. This enables us to run away (flight mode) or fight off danger (fight mode).  
  • Sweating: Sweating cools the body. It also makes the skin more slippery and difficult for an attacking animal or person to grab hold of us.

There are many more reactions that happen in our bodies due to us being on hyper alert because we feel anxious, maybe some of these apply to you? 

  • Nausea and stomach upset: When faced with danger, the body shuts down systems/processes that are unnecessary for survival; that way it can direct energy to functions that are critical for survival. Digestion isn’t one, so anxiety might lead to feelings of stomach upset, nausea or diarrhea.
  • Tight or painful chest:? Because your muscles tense up as your body prepares for danger, your chest may feel tight or painful when you take in large breaths.

Hopefully you can see that when we are anxious our brain is trying so hard to decrease, end, or evade the danger that it perceives and return to a state of calm and control.

But what happens when there is no real danger because anxiety triggers the 3 F's response into action when we believe there is threat or danger even if there is not?

The 3 F's response can be triggered in our every day lives; you yell at your partner for pushing you into agreeing to speak at a conference when you don’t feel ready (fight). You avoid going to a party or leave early because you don’t feel comfortable around unfamiliar people (flight). Or, your mind goes blank when your boss asks you a question (freeze). 

All of these are examples that can cause anxiety, can actually, in turn, mistakenly trigger the 3 F’s within us. Public speaking, parties, and answering questions are not dangerous situations, but if your alarm system is set to “high alert”, which is what happens when we are anxious,  it will go off even in relatively harmless situations.

So with all that being said, how can we start to control anxiety if our brain seems to have a mind of its own? How can we manage our anxiety so that it doesn’t dictate every aspect of our lives?

In next weeks blog we will talk about how to cope and manage our anxiety so that we can live a happier and healthier life.


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For more information about 'Our brains and anxiety', check out the below video: