Anxiety is never pleasant, especially if you have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety can make everyday tasks feel like major challenges. It can impair your performance when you need to pass a test, interview for a job, give a speech, or deliver in a big moment. Even worse, anxiety can harass you when there’s nothing going on at all. You might be safe in bed, ready to sleep after a long day, only to have anxiety keep you awake. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, anxiety, if left untreated can actually change your brain.
Anxiety changes your brain’s connectivity.
If your brain is chronically stressed, whether from external circumstances, an anxiety disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder, your brain will eventually start to wire itself differently. Chronically stressed brains typically show greater connectivity between the hippocampus and the amygdala and weaker connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. The hippocampus is primarily involved in encoding new long-term memories, especially memories that are emotionally charged, while the amygdala is involved in processing emotions, especially fight-or-flight emotions. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher functions, including emotional regulation. If your hippocampus is more strongly connected to the amygdala than it is to the prefrontal cortex, you are more likely to experience anxiety and less able to get it under control.
You can’t shut off.
Because of the structural changes anxiety causes in the brain and because rumination becomes a habit when you often feel anxious, your brain may get to a point where you always feel anxious. Harmless stimuli are more likely to be interpreted as threatening, and even if there’s nothing going on around you, your brain will often fetch something from your memory, or invent some future possibility to worry about. This makes you feel constantly stressed, increasing stress hormones like cortisol and impairing your immune function, leading to more illnesses. It also interferes with sleep. Getting too little quality sleep increases feelings of anxiety and even thoughts of suicide. What’s more, the intrusive worries and ruminations caused by anxiety are very distracting and can make it hard to concentrate.
Your hippocampus shrinks.
The hippocampus is the only part of the brain that we know of that keeps producing neurons in the adult brain. Unfortunately, the stress associated with constant anxiety can slow the growth of neurons in the hippocampus, causing it to shrink. Meanwhile, it may also increase the production of myelin, the fatty tissue that insulates neurons. This buildup of myelin can disrupt signalling, while the loss of cells in the hippocampus can lead to memory problems.
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