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The anxious brain: Understanding triggers and how to control them

Case study by Sara Robinson

In the UK, more than 8 million people are experiencing an anxiety disorder at any one time. Sara Robinson talks through the biological processes behind it, what triggers it, and how it can be controlled.

Anxiety is a natural defence response to situations and thoughts that feel threatening. A fear response isn’t always negative as it can bring our attention to immediate or potential harm; however, taken to the extreme, these defence mechanisms can leave the mind overwhelmed with hyper-vigilance or overthinking.

Before we discuss how anxiety manifests, we need to define it in relation to stress. When we experience stress, it’s usually from known sources; for example, stressing about missing a flight or fatigue from an excessive workload. On the other hand, anxiety is brought on by specific fears or dread, rumination, or reliving negative memories. Experiencing chronic stress over a period of time can also lead to anxiety.

To understand how we can manage anxiety for a healthier, fuller life, we need to be able to pinpoint triggers and manage them with self-care. Achieving this means understanding how our mind processes anxiety and what we can do to lower its effects.

How the brain processes anxiety

The limbic system is the major area of the brain that processes emotional reactions. It’s made up of the amygdala (an almond-shaped structure), the hippocampus, the hypothalamus, and the thalamus. The amygdala, located deep in the brain, acts as a communication centre between the areas of the brain that process incoming sensory signals and the areas that interpret the signals. When we sense a threat (whether it’s happening at the moment or triggered by a thought or memory), the amygdala alerts the brain and sets off a fear or anxiety response.

The Limbic System [source:] Hughes et al. (2005) Image source: ResearchGate

Emotional memories are stored in the central part of the amygdala and may contribute to experiencing anxiety - for example, recalling a negative memory. When the brain sends out stress or anxiety signals, it releases chemicals from the adrenal glands into the bloodstream, namely cortisol - the stress hormone - and norepinephrine.

These chemicals set in motion the fight or flight responses (also referred to as somatic reflexes such as freezing), making the heart beat faster to circulate more oxygen in the body and causing rapid breathing (hyperventilation).

In this state, the body receives a surge of adrenaline to deal with the perceived threat (also referred to as survival mode). Other anxiety responses include sweating, muscle aches, dryness of the mouth, trembling, gastrointestinal (GI) problems, and hot or cold flushes.

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Understanding anxiety triggers

Family genetics can play a role in the predisposition to heightened anxiety, but environmental factors and personal habits are major influences on stress and anxiety levels. Anxiety triggers range from stressful work or home environments to anxiety over social interactions outside work or home settings. These triggers become exacerbated by certain lifestyle or dietary habits, including too much caffeine or alcohol. Lack of sleep and a poor diet compound anxiety and can send it spiralling as the body is fatigued from lack of rest and an insufficient nutrition, which can lead to feeling hypoglycemic (low glucose levels). Generally feeling run down on a frequent basis puts the body’s systems under stress and increases susceptibility to anxiety and illness.

Calming strategies to control anxiety responses

The increase in mental health awareness in recent years has influenced our attitudes towards coping with anxiety and stress. Anxiety is no longer considered a condition that affects some more than others; rather, it is viewed as an area of our lives that needs more social awareness and support. Coping strategies for anxiety consist of:

  • Reducing stimulant substances such as alcohol and caffeine

  • Regularly exercising

  • Reducing screen time

  • Getting adequate sleep

  • Changing dietary habits to include Omega-3-rich foods such as spinach and fish

  • Breathing exercises are also significantly helpful in instantly calming the anxious mind and slowing down stress responses

Anxiety does not define you

Dealing with anxiety and stress can seem daunting, but understanding what is happening in our minds and our behaviour patterns is the first step in taking decisive action to self-care and change our environments for the better. If you are experiencing chronic anxiety, reach out to a trusted friend or family member for support or a certified medical health professional. Seeking help and taking time for ourselves helps in reducing triggers and getting the body on the right track to manage anxiety without it dominating our thoughts and limiting us from living life fully.

Having anxious thoughts and feelings can be isolating, but remember they are emotional reactions and not the definition of who you are. You are not in this alone, and with the right information, you can process your feelings and memories from a place of self-care and self-trust - don't worry, you got this.

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