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When Anxiety Hits

What Happens In The Brain When Anxiety Hits

What Happens in the Brain When Anxiety Hits

I do not mean to scare anybody.  But truth be told, anxiety attacks are an overpoweringly horrifying experience. I have felt it once, and I know from there that I would never dream of having it again. Most importantly, I would not wish it for anyone to go through that similar experience.

However, because of that incident, I have become more conscious about myself. I have gained a wild curiosity about how anxiety affects me and what happens inside of me when anxiety hits. I have done my part of researching anxiety and how it affects the brain, and so, I share with you what I have gathered.

Anxiety Defined

Anxiety, by definition, is a form of the psychological and physiological state characterized by cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and somatic experiences. This state creates feelings of overwhelming and uncontrollable dread that seems as if someone is about to die or lose his or her mind. In either presence or absence of any known psychological stress, anxiety produces violent changes in the body such as sweating, heart palpitations, dizziness, and breathing difficulties.  

Generally, anxiety is a normal response to any stressor. It helps us deal with stressful situations making us more alert and focused, more ready for action, and more likely to be motivated to solve problems. However, this anxiety can be detrimental when such experience becomes excessive. When that happens, it may fall under the classification of an anxiety disorder.

Do you have anxiety?  Take this 3-minute quiz and find out click here.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders, as delineated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition, text revision (DSM IV-TR), include panic disorder with and without agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, acute stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and substance-induced anxiety disorder. 

These disorders and their corresponding symptoms bring about profound effects not only in your life but also in the lives of the people around you. These attacks are very vicious and non-discriminatory. They affect millions of people from varying ages (may it be a child or adult) and varying situations (while sleeping, driving, or during pregnancy).

Pathophysiology (What exactly happens to the brain leading up to the attack?)

At present, there is still no definitive pathophysiological mechanism as to how anxiety develops. But anxiety disorders are believed to be brought about by a disruption in the modulation of the processes within the central nervous system.

To better understand this process involving anxiety and the brain, let us first discuss some critical parts and functions of the nervous system.

A. Overview 

The nervous system is a major system of the human body that is responsible for controlling all human functions. It works to analyze incoming stimuli and to assimilate internal and external responses. This system is divided into two sections which are: the central nervous system (CNS), which consists of the brain and the spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system (PNS), which is composed of sensory receptors that bring information into the CNS and motor nerves that carry information away from the CNS to facilitate a response to a stimulus.

The motor nerves of the PNS, in turn, have two subdivisions, namely: the somatic nervous system, which is responsible for voluntary or conscious control of skeletal muscles, and the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary activity.

This autonomic nervous system also has two parts: the sympathetic nervous system, which activates during emergencies, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which is inhibited during emergencies.

The structural unit of the nervous system is called a neuron or nerve cell. These billions of neurons are organized to allow coordinated movement, to easily respond to internal and external stimuli, to enable learning and thinking, and to recognize various sensations. These neurons operate through the use of electrical impulses and chemical messengers to transmit information throughout the body.

These electrical impulses are called action potentials.  Nerve membranes send messages to nearby neurons via this electrical system. This electrical impulse comes to a halt when the action potential reaches the end of an axon. Then, chemical messengers or neurotransmitters take their place in the transmission of information from two nerve cells or between a nerve and a gland.

Several neurotransmitters that play an essential role during anxiety activity include: 

1. Serotonin, found in the emotional part of the brain called the limbic system, is vital for sleep and arousal as well as in preventing anxiety and depression.

2. Norepinephrine and epinephrine, both catecholamines, are released during stressful times by the sympathetic nervous system.

3. Dopamine is involved in the coordination of impulses, both motor and intellectual.

4. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) inhibits nerve overexcitability during anxiety attacks and seizure activity. 

B. The Process

When the senses perceive an incoming threat or potential danger, the sensory receptors found throughout the body (located in the skin, eyes, ears, nose, and mouth) are activated, sending this message to the CNS for processing. This message is particularly filtered by the ANS, which then releases neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and epinephrine (or adrenaline). These chemicals shoot up, gearing the body for “flight or fight.”

With the activation of the flight or fight responses, anxiety disorder symptoms then manifest. These include an increase in heart rate to pump blood more rapidly to the needed areas of the body (which causes cold, clammy skin and tingling sensation in the hands and feet) and an increase in respiratory rate to get the tissues of the human body more needed oxygen (which causes tightness in the chest, choking sensations, difficulty breathing, and dizziness).

The nature of the flight or fight system activated by anxiety moves us into an “attack” mode. As such, we tend to perceive everything as a possible threat to our survival. It is no wonder that fear becomes the chief lens through which we see the world.

Ryan Rivera is a former anxiety patient. He is now free of the condition and shares tips in managing anxiety and panic at

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