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What Happens to Your Brain When Anxiety Attacks?

Do you remember the last time you experienced stomach cramps, difficulty in breathing, a rapid heart rate, dizziness, the sense of dread or uncontrollable fear? These are the normal biological symptoms of the panic brought on by anxiety.

Most people feel anxious about situations in their life, such as financial problems, relationship issues or exams that can be temporary and may fade away with time. However, some people having GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder) feel a stronger sense of panic or fear than other people and find it hard to control it. In such a condition, anxiety becomes a serious problem and affects their well-being or everyday activities. But, the key is to understand why anxiety occurs, how is it different from stress, what it does to your brain, and how can you deal with it when it takes hold.

What Exactly Anxiety Is, and How It Differs from Stress

Although an anxiety attack does evoke the same flight, freeze or fight emotions that stress does, there are differences between the two. Stress is a response of external influences (such as an argument with the spouse or giving a presentation to the audience on stage) that you are finding difficult to handle, while anxiety is an internal response that arises because of stress.

You can know the triggers or causes of stress, but it is not always simple to figure out the causes of anxiety. Also, stress normally disappears after the troublesome situation is over, but anxiety persists for months or even years. Therefore, anxiety is more difficult to manage and hence considered as a legitimate psychological disorder.

Anyone who is uncertain about whether they are suffering from anxiety or stress should tell the doctor and get a necessary treatment on the matter.

What Happens to the Brain During Anxiety Attacks?

Recently, researchers from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London have conducted a study in which they found that there are certain regions of the brain that become hyperactive during a panic attack.

When people feel anxious, certain regions of the brain, including the amygdala - the part of the limbic system, revs up and starts releasing stress hormones. It communicates with the hypothalamus, alerts the rest of the brain that a danger is present and triggers a fight or flight response. It fills the nervous system with cortisol and norepinephrine, which are responsible for the increased body’s heart rate and blood pressure.

When sympathetic nervous system activates, sufferers often feel that they might be dying or choking. Then the parasympathetic nervous system steps in to stabilize the symptoms evolve from the sympathetic nervous system. In case parasympathetic nervous system stops working properly, a person may feel the heightened sense of awareness characteristic of an anxiety attack. Ideally, these feelings gradually go away when the threat passes and your body returns to normal.

How to Cope with Anxiety

We all feel an onslaught of emotions in our everyday life for various reasons, and try to discover different ways to cope with it. Here are a few things you can do to control anxiety when you feel it is escalating:

Do Exercise: Exercise is a terrific way to manage anxiety. Physical activity improves feelings of well-being and allows you to stay stress-free. If the thought of the workout itself makes you nervous, try including a few simple physical activities in your routine such as brisk walking, washing dishes or watering plants.

Try Yoga or Meditation: Meditation does wonders for your emotional and mental health. It allows focusing on the present instead of letting the past or background come to the fore. Also, try yoga or deep-breathing exercises that help decrease your blood pressure and calm your mind.

Remove Anxiety-Inducing Food: If you are feeling stressed or panicky, consider removing alcohol, sugar or starch rich foods from your diet and including mood-enhancing foods such as fresh vegetables and fruits in your diet.

Take Proper Sleep: An insufficient sleep can leave anyone worn out, and especially people who suffer from panic attacks or anxiety. Make sure you take at least 7-8 hours of sleep. If you find it difficult to sleep you should consider some sleep enhancing techniques or contact your physician, who could offer you some medicines that may assist in increasing melatonin (a hormone responsible for sleep) production in your body.

Apart from the above-mentioned points, there are several other ways to improve mental health and control anxiety. But when anxiety becomes so overwhelming that it hampers your day-to-day activities, it is time to take serious steps. If you experience chronic anxiety, you should make an appointment with a psychologist, mental health specialist or your G.P. You can also gain help from online resources to find health therapists in your area.

Be specific as possible while explaining your mental illness to a therapist. If you have specific things that trigger your anxiety, don’t forget to tell your therapist about this. Some people who have GAD are given cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) - an approach where people are taught coping skills for controlling stress and panic. This therapy gives effective and long-lasting improvements.

There may also be the option of anti-anxiety drugs. This is very much a personal decision and should be discussed with your therapist or GP.

Whatever you choose to do, don't feel you need to do it alone. There is lots of help out there!

Authors Bio


Eve Charlton is a dietitian and an avid reader. She writes health and fitness related articles to help the people around her become more conscious. Eve also provides wellness coaching, inspiring people to eat well and live a healthy life. In her spare time, you'll find her in bed either with a pile of books or with her laptop. You can reach her via Facebook

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