Worried Brain: What is Anxiety?
In life, many of us face situations which cause unprecedented amounts of stress and anxiety. In these minutes, hours or days, you can feel completely hopeless and resigned to drown in the persistent worry such hard times bring. Although we all can feel anxious from time to time, there are individuals who suffer from chronic anxiety disorders; debilitating conditions which encompass every aspect of their lives. Studying individuals with these disorders has taught us about how the brain differs in patients with anxiety, how this differs from temporary anxiousness and how we can help the mind refocus on non-anxious thoughts. At a time where the world is filled with uncertainty and many of us are staying inside for the foreseeable future, it can help to learn about how anxiousness affects our brains and try to practice some behaviours which will help give your mind some relief from worrying thoughts.
Anxiety in the Brain
When you are going through a period of constant anxiousness, you can feel extremely alone. However, it is reported that up to 21% of adults suffer from Generalised Anxiety Disorder at some point during their adult lives. Generalised Anxiety Disorder describes persistent worry about a situation an individual finds tricky to take control of. This could be stress over school assessment, the health of a loved one or work deadlines – common places which the majority of us unfortunately find ourselves in at some point. To be diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, an individual displays symptoms such as restlessness, reduced focus and fatigue, and proper treatment through inventions like therapy or drug prescription are vital for recovery.
It is thought Generalised Anxiety Disorder can occur a result of genetics (aka, if someone in your family suffers from anxiety, you are more likely to) for 30-50% of cases, hinting there is a definite underlying biological mechanism for why some people may be more susceptible to anxious thoughts than others. Therefore, environmental stressors, like trauma or loss, are reported to account for ~50-70% cases of Generalised Anxiety Disorder. It has been proposed these stressors could trigger a change in the expression of some of your genes, resulting in an anxiety disorder, although current studies in this field have been done on small numbers of people. It has been reported that individuals with Generalised Anxiety Disorder have reduced levels of connectivity between brain regions involved in threat processing (the amygdala) and higher behaviours like rationalising and emotional regulation (the prefrontal cortex) at rest. This suggests that anxiety could compromise the ability for fearful, stressful emotions to be appropriately regulated, leaving the individual with a magnified perception of the negative elements of a situation. Individuals with generalised anxiety disorder have also reportedly shown some alterations in their brain’s chemistry, but these results are mixed from case to case – explaining why some anti-anxiolytic drugs work for certain people and not others.
So what is the difference between Generalised Anxiety Disorder and anxious thoughts? The first is a medical condition which needs formal intervention for improvement whereas feeling temporarily anxiousness is a normal response to a yet-to-happen threatening situation. The mechanism of anxiety puts your brain on high alert in anticipation of something going wrong and the way your brain illicit this ‘impending threat’ response is to hype up the amygdala. This triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response to get your body prepped for the potential threat by increasing you heart rate & blood pressure. The amygdala also stores fear memories, meaning its activation can remind you of how similar threatening situations played on in the past. Anxiety is thought to activate the prefrontal cortex to grant control over sensationalising these fearful emotions related to the threat, however repetitive-thinking induces the state we associate with being ‘anxious’. It has been proposed that worrying behaviour can be reinforced if nothing bad comes from a situation as your brain registers excessive worrying with positive outcome. This could lead to a more worry and even trigger the development of an anxiety disorder, altering brain circuitry and leaving it in a permanent state of anxiousness.
What Can You Do?
When treating Generalised Anxiety Disorders, some of the key interventions alongside drug treatment are therapy and guided self-help. In addition, meditation has been reported as having potential positive impacts on symptoms. Although you may not be suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder, we are all in a bit of an anxiety-inducing situation at the minute. So if you are feeling anxious over the next few weeks, you could try some of the following:
1. Practice Meditation: There are many amazing free online courses or livestreams which you can join in with from your living room! Meditation has been scientifically shown to alter your brain so give it a try!
2. Avoid Your Phone and the News: As we spend more time at home, it is much easier to pick up your phone and constantly refresh social media or the news pages. In a fast moving situation, have a news update every 5 minutes can be very stressful. Set aside time slots to check your phone, switch of your non-essential notifications and keep your device out of grabbing distance.
3.Pick Up an Old or New Hobby: What better time to reignite your love for reading? Or to try knitting for the first time? Refocusing your mind on a fun task should help distract from some of those worrying thoughts.
4.Keep Moving: Make sure you are getting up and about. If you can go outside, get out each day for a walk/run. If you are restricted to staying indoors, do some home workouts! Again, the internet is filled with experts running virtual classes so get involved!
5.Stay Connected: Anxious thoughts can be tough to deal with when your routine is compromised, so try to keep in touch with friends and family. You could call them, video chat with a group or even play virtual games! Ensuring you are socialising during this time will keep your spirits up.
Although you may currently feel like you are alone with anxiety-inducing thoughts about the world’s situation, you are not doing this solo. We are all in this situation together and sharing our thoughts can really help. Try to practice some of the above actions and make your new situation into as much as a routine as you can. If you are feeling overwhelmed, please reach out to friends, family or your GP for guidance. Sending you all lots of love and support. We will get through!
Julia xoxox (@Julia.ravey.science)
This review is what I used for the majority of my information on anxiety, and to learn more about the symptoms and treatments for Generalised Anxiety Disorder, check out the NHS website. If you want more brain info, try my website or Youtube!