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What Part of the Brain Controls Anxiety?

By Dr. Usmarah Hussain

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What Part of the Brain Controls Anxiety

From helping us remember the tiniest details from years ago to letting us solve complex mathematical questions, the human brain never fails to amaze us. But did you know that our brain wasn’t always like this?

Like everything else, our brain has been evolving since the time when the world around us was very different: when humans used to be nomadic hunters and lived in tribal communities and fought countless threats from wild animals to poisonous snakes every day. These threats helped the brain evolve and acquire the fight-or-flight response that allowed them to respond to perceived dangers.

200,000 years later today, the exact mechanism continues to protect us from all kinds of evolving dangers in our surroundings. Unfortunately, today’s society and technology have also been evolving rapidly and much more quickly than our brains. Sometimes, the brain fails to keep up with these constantly evolving environments, resulting in anxiety and stress as if a wild lion is chasing it.

Whether it is an actual lion or just a false alarm, have you ever wondered what causes the brain to develop an anxious response to these threats? How does it respond to it, and is it possible to tame it? This article will help you find all the answers.

Top Three Parts of the Brain that Control Anxiety

Whenever you feel anxious, three parts of the brain are actively contributing to these thoughts. These include:

  • The frontal lobe, the think tank of the brain that controls smartness and advanced intelligence
  • The limbic system, including the amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus, is the emotional zone associated with feelings and sensations [1]
  • The brainstem, where all the survival mechanisms take place [2]

Let’s discuss in detail what each of the brain areas mentioned above does,

The Frontal Lobe

Wondering where all your smartness and intelligence come from? Thank your frontal lobe. This part of the brain exclusively controls higher functioning and plays a part in deep thinking. It also plays a role in critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication processing.

Human brain
Illustration of parts of the brain

The Limbic System

Feeling happy or low? Excited or nervous? Whatever kind of emotion you are feeling, it’s probably coming from the limbic system.[3]

The Brainstem

Your brainstem is what literally keeps you alive by controlling critical functions like your heart rate, breathing, movement, sleep-wake cycle, and body temperature. [4]

Tracing the Origin of Anxiety: How the Brain Triggers it?

We all know that anxiety develops in the brain, but what triggers it?

Neurotransmitters and Anxiety

The human brain responds directly to changes in neurotransmitters changes. These neurotransmitters are tiny chemicals in the brain that send signals to the brain about how you should think, feel, and act. Many neurotransmitters have been directly involved in anxiety, including GABA, norepinephrine, and serotonin.[5] When these neurotransmitters go out of balance, the anxiety risk significantly increases. Interestingly, the effects of neurotransmitter changes on anxiety levels may vary, depending on which one of them goes off-balance and the nature of this off-balance (neurotransmitter excess or deficiency).

Anxiety and Hormones

Many natural hormones in the body directly affect brain chemistry and neurotransmitter synthesis. If any of them goes off-balance, anxiety may conjure. Some hormones that may affect brain function and promote anxiety include the following:

  • Adrenaline: adrenaline imbalances are the commonest cause of anxiety. The body releases its hormone when it is in an active fight-or-flight situation to increase muscle tension, heart rate, and more. Increased levels of adrenaline make these changes permanent, increasing the likelihood of anxiety.
  • Thyroid Hormones: These hormones directly regulate the levels of certain mood-regulating neurotransmitters, such as gamma-aminobutyric acid, norepinephrine, and serotonin.[6] Any problems with the thyroid hormone can directly contribute to anxiety.

How Different Parts of the Brain Respond When You are Anxious

By now, you know what areas of the brain control anxiety and what triggers it. But you are yet to know how each of these areas responds as your anxiety levels go up. Here is what you should know about it.

The Brainstem

  • It prioritizes all survival functions and makes your heart beat faster,, so you inhale more oxygen and be prepared to run away or fight if needed.
  • It puts extra energy into your limbs to strengthen you.

The Limbic System

  • It intensifies your emotions and feelings
  • It acts as a warning system to help you respond quickly to threats

The Prefrontal Cortex

  • It goes offline temporarily as your brain does not need advanced intelligence, like speaking a learned language or doing algebra, when you are in danger.
  • The prefrontal cortex sends off the energy the brain normally uses to make you intelligent to other body systems that need it to face a. perceived threat or anxious moment.

Train Your Brain: Three Ways to Keep Anxiety Under Control

Now that you know which part of the brain controls anxiety and how it’s affected by it, the next question is: can you learn how to tame it? The short answer is yes, you certainly can. Wondering how? Keep reading to learn about the top three tips that can help you out.

Raise Awareness

Whenever you are facing anxiety, remind yourself that your focus is what determines your reality. So your number one goal to get out of the anxious situation must be finding a different focus without losing track of what your mind is thinking. Think about the thoughts racing through your mind and do not let them control you. Instead, keep them in check by implementing a system that can categorize, catalog, and label every thought as positive or negative. Depending on the label you put on them, keep them in your mind or discard the thoughts.

As you prepare yourself to juggle and shuffle your thoughts, remember that it can be a bit hard in the beginning. Do not consider it as a mere game that you can play whenever you wish to. Once you are in, it becomes a commitment for life, and you cannot stop.

Juggling Thoughts Anxiety

Give Your Worries a Timeframe

It is practically impossible to accomplish anything well with anxiety constantly consuming your mind and energy. Keeping yourself distracted or reassuring yourself may do the job temporarily but you cannot always keep things going. So what else can you do to tame it? Instead of trying to get rid of your anxious thoughts altogether, why not postpone it to a certain time later? It may sound absurd to some people, but many people have been using this technique for a long time to keep going with their everyday activities without letting anxiety get in the way.

To follow this approach, the first thing you need to do is designate a time to worry. Make sure the time slot you choose is comfortable and a bit earlier than your bedtime so that the anxious thoughts do not interfere with your sleep. The next step is to train your mind to limit the stressful thoughts to this particular timeframe. If an anxious thought pops up in the brain, make a mental note and continue the rest of the day. Remind yourself that you will have time later to think about it, so there is no need to worry right now.

So what happens when your worry period arrives? Let all your anxieties and stresses loose, and allow yourself to think about them as much as you can. At the same time, be mindful of the time and do not exceed it. Some days, you will not have much to worry about, so you can simply skip this time slot and continue enjoying the rest of the day. This habit is one of the best ways to break the habit of anxious thinking and maximize your productivity during the day. It will take some patience and time, but you will surely get there.

Try problem-solving

If an anxious thought is constantly nagging you, ask yourself whether you have a solution for it. Continuing to worry about it isn’t going to do any good and hardly ever leads to solutions. So instead of wasting time worrying, adopt a solution-focused approach.

Problem Solving for Anxiety

Keep in mind that there will be times when your anxiety will reach a serious level with lots of imaginary or highly unrealistic what-ifs, such as:

  • What if I lose everything?
  • What if I get cancer someday?
  • What if I get into an accident?

Worries like these are unrealistic and unsolvable; therefore, they must be avoided. Sort out all your worries one by one and find out if there is a solution for them. If not, dump them away using the techniques mentioned above.

Conclusion: Taking Charge of Your Anxious Brain

Worrying is an innate mechanism of the brain involving several areas and is something that you cannot completely get rid of. It’s completely natural to worry about one thing or another from time to time, but when it starts messing with your overall health, you must get up and do something about it before it gets to the best of you. Learn to own your worries and accept your feelings and you will find yourself in control of your life soon enough.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can anxiety change the structure of the brain?

Research suggests that chronic anxiety and stress can mess with the anatomical brain, causing degeneration of its structure and functions. These changes are more likely seen in two particular brain areas: the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. As a result, people facing long-term anxiety are at a significantly high risk of acquiring neuropsychiatric disorders, like dementia and depression.

Is anxiety genetic?

Most of the twin studies and research investigating anxiety have consistently indicated that up to 50% of the prevalence of anxiety is due to genetic factors.

Can anxiety ever be good for the brain?

Although anxiety may seem useless and damaging at times, it has a purpose. The symptoms and feelings associated with anxiety are a natural way through which the human body deals with stress. Known as the fight-or-flight response, it is meant to protect humans from potential threats and danger and enables them to respond faster to emergencies.


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