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Anxiety And The Brain

One in four people struggles with anxiety during the festive period. However, after such a tumultuous year, with strict restrictions in place for many during the holidays, we can expect this statistic to be much higher at the moment. Having anxious thoughts is common and completely normal. It is your body’s response to help keep you alert and protect you when danger is present.

When anxiety becomes a bigger problem is when there is seemingly no trigger for your anxiety. Instead of alerting you to danger, your brain begins to remain in a constant state of worry and fear. When this happens, you may feel generally anxious, without knowing why. This is because your brain is continuously releasing stress hormones, leaving your brain flooded with negativity and completely overwhelmed.

So, what is happening to your brain when you’re anxious and is there anything you can do to keep your brain in check?

How Anxiety Affects The Brain

When it comes to anxiety, scientists are still trying to understand all of the complex systems in the brain. Many different regions of the brain all create a network with anxiety, which can make it harder to pinpoint exactly what is going on. However, there are some aspects that we do know already;

Amygdala: The Anxiety Hub

The amygdala is a small part of your brain, the size of an almond, centred in your limbic system. When you experience anxiety, the amygdala goes into overdrive. So much so, that if you experience anxiety regularly, then the amygdala grows larger. When it is larger, it can become more sensitive; this means it is more reactive to smaller events and false alarms.

This hyper-sensitivity means that you may get anxious, seemingly without any trigger.

How To Help Your Amygdala

Build Your Awareness: When negative thoughts come to mind, it is important to note them and effectively catch them before they take hold. By building your awareness, you can start to understand where your triggers may have come from, and understand your thoughts, so that you can begin to control them.

It can help to implement a system of recording your anxious thoughts. Include aspects such as time, date, what you are doing and what you are feeling. By documenting your thoughts, you are showing your brain that you have recognised what your brain is telling you and designating it as a negative thought that does not serve you.

This helps your brain to understand that it doesn’t need to send out anxiety signals for that particular situation. This can calm the amygdala and help it to learn when it is sending false alarms.

Dorsal Anterior Cingulate Cortex: The Amplifier

The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (DACC) is located in the frontal lobe of the brain. It is here that the brain amplifies fearful signals. Studies show that if you see fearful faces, then the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex recognises this and amplifies the fear, sending it to your amygdala, which can create palpable anxiety.

How To Help Your Dorsal Anterior Cingulate Cortex

Schedule Your Worry: When you have anxiety, often people simply tell you not to worry, which doesn’t help! So, don’t try to ignore your worries, or push them to the back of your mind. Instead, schedule time later in the day to allow yourself to worry. This is the first step in controlling your thoughts and showing yourself the self-care that you need by permitting yourself.

The time can be up to you but try to postpone your worry for a good chunk of time, to train your brain that you can control your thoughts. The early evening can often be best, as you don’t want to bring up anxious thoughts just before bed. Then, with a fixed period in the place, say 30 minutes or so, go over your worry list, embrace how you’re feeling, journal out your worries and what you can do to help alleviate your worries. By the end of the worry period, you should feel lighter about your concerns, even if they are not entirely resolved.

You can schedule worry time every day; this helps you not to suppress your anxiety, but also have control to stop it from taking over every waking thought.

This technique can help your DACC as you are recognising fear, noting it down, but stopping it from taking priority.

Prefrontal Cortex: Balancing The Emotional And Cognitive Brain

The frontal lobe, where you can find the prefrontal cortex, is known as the cognitive brain, while the amygdala is known as the emotional centre. This connection is vital as when your amygdala alerts you to danger, the prefrontal cortex then kicks in to help you find a rational, logical response.

Over time, anxiety can weaken the connection between the emotional and cognitive regions. This makes it harder to find a reasonable, level-headed response. When your emotional brain overpowers the cognitive, it can lead to anxiety, irrational thoughts, and negative behaviours.

How To Help Your Prefrontal Cortex

Challenge Anxious Thoughts And Problem Solve: We want the cognitive part of the brain to be strong so that it can help us create reasonable and logical responses when fear takes hold. This is why it is vital to strengthen the prefrontal cortex by challenging anxious thoughts with a balanced view.

Instead of treating your anxieties as facts, consider them as hypotheses. Can you challenge yourself not to think a certain way? For example, if you do something differently, can you prevent that anxious thought from occurring?

You can also try to turn your worries into problem-solving exercises. Instead of going over the same anxiety over and over, ask yourself if there is a solution you can take. There will be some anxieties that are unsolvable. However, by taking smaller steps to manage the anxieties that you can solve, you will put your cognitive brain back in charge.

The Hippocampus: The Anxious Memory Bank

The hippocampus is the memory bank of the brain. It is where you process and store long-term memories. When you’re anxious, the hippocampus can shrink. This makes it harder for your brain to hold onto memories. With severe anxiety, you may notice that you forget significant events.

The other issue is that anxiety makes your hippocampus believe that any anxious thoughts and memories are safe to hold onto. As a result, you may start to have more memories that are associated with being anxious while burying happier, safe memories deeply, making them harder to access.

Consequently, you may find that your anxiety grows as you’ll have strong, anxious memories which you will associate with what you are currently experiencing.

How To Help Your Hippocampus

Emotional Regulation: If there are memories that are being used as triggers, making you anxious about events in your life, then there are ways you can reprogram your mind to help lessen the negative memories. There are several ways this can happen, such as changing the context of the event, substituting memories or weakening the memory.

With blended therapy, including hypnotherapy and NLP, it is possible to help your hippocampus to link calmer, positive emotions with memories so that it lessens fear. To find out more about how hypnotherapy and other therapy techniques can help you take control of your anxiety, get in touch. During a free consultation, I will work to understand your specific anxieties then explain what techniques I can use to help you take control of your negative thoughts and reduce your anxiety.


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