Anxiety: It's In Your Head (Your Brain!)

Wednesday, February 19 2014 Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Sometimes anxiety makes us wonder if it's all in our heads. Rest assured, anxiety is real. Anxiety is physically in the brain.

When you live with anxiety, it's frustrating to be told that it's "all in your head." Great news: you can begin to let go of this maddening annoyance. Anxiety isn't "in your head." Why? Because it is in your head. Literally. Anxiety is in your brain.

How We Know Anxiety is in the Brain

When someone tells us, "Just calm down. You're making a big deal out of nothing. It's all in your head," or when we question ourselves, wondering if we're going crazy because our anxiety seems irrational but it won't go away, the implication is that we're making up our anxiety or overreacting to something.

Thanks to neuroscience and technology, such as the fMRI, which measures and illuminates brain activity, we are gaining a deeper understanding of the human brain. One thing researchers are understanding is that anxiety really is brain-based. It is physical. People experiencing anxiety in any form are not making it up. It isn't "in their head," but it is in their brain.

And wow, is it in the brain! Areas in every single part of the brain are involved when we're experiencing anxiety. For a moment, picture the brain as a pinball machine--one of the exceptionally loud, flashy ones. Anxiety is the round, steel ball that would really hurt if it were hurled at you and you couldn't duck. Here's what happens:

Anxiety, Your Brain, and the Pinball Machine

Something, whether conscious or subconscious, triggers us. Sensory information regarding the trigger goes to the brain. The pinball machine's spring-activated ball shooter has propelled the anxiety ball. It's now loose in the brain, wreaking havoc wherever it hits.

Sometimes anxiety makes us wonder if it's all in our heads'. Rest assured, anxiety is real. Anxiety is physically in the brain.The pinball-machine brain consists of the neocortex (the area of higher thinking and processing), the limbic system/area (the area of emotion), and the reptilian area (associated with survival, fight-or-flight). The steel ball of anxiety bounces around inside all areas of the brain, ricocheting off bumpers and slingshots, and careening over rollover switches: structures such as the amygdala, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, hippocampus, brain stem, and lateral septum. The machine's pinball flippers--hormones, and neurotransmitters such as adrenaline, cortisol, insulin, and dopamine--propel the anxiety ball back and forth and up and down all over the brain.

As the ball rolls around like wild, buzzers sound, bells ding, and lights flash. The anxiety brain is on overdrive, and it tells our bodies to react accordingly. This pinball game serves to create all of the physical, cognitive, and emotional symptoms associated with anxiety. After all, what is it that coordinates and runs every single system in our body? The brain.

It's Good that Anxiety is in the Brain

So yes, anxiety is quite literally in the head. Anxiety is a steel ball ricocheting through the pinball machine of a brain, affecting every area and stimulating anxiety responses. Science has measured and documented it.

There's very good news here. First, you can know with certainty that it is not "in your head;" you're not making it up. Second, anxiety is physical, so like other physical conditions, it can be treated. Third, there are triggers that set anxiety in motion. Understanding these can prevent the ball from lighting up the pinball machine. You don't have to be a walking arcade your entire life.

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps, and four critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges. She speaks nationally about mental health, and she has a curriculum for middle and high schools. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

View all posts by Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC.

Anxiety: It's In Your Head (Your Brain!)

Melanie Lapensee
says:
February, 22 2014 at 3:53 pm

This is such a well-written article, the comparison to a pinball machine makes it really easy to understand. Anxiety can be difficult to handle, but as a holistic therapist, I know that Reiki and IET can help manage it. You can read more about it on my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/holisticmelanie

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

February, 24 2014 at 12:04 pm

Hi Melanie,

I really appreciate your comments! My own brain often feels like a pinball machine, so I was hoping that using the metaphor would make sense. :) I also think holistic healing is extremely important and effective. I look forward to visiting your facebook page. It sounds like a great resource.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Shirley Brown
says:
July, 28 2014 at 7:17 pm

This was such a great article. Several times lately when I've tried to go to sleep I've felt like my brain was a pinball machine with jerky lights and fast bumping feelings playing behind my eyes. I just googled "brain feels like a pinball machine", and your article popped up. I didn't know it was caused by the increased anxiety I've been having for the past few weeks. It really helps to know that what I'm experiencing is real and not made up in my head. I'm going to show this article to my doctor.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

July, 30 2014 at 2:35 pm

Hi Shirley,
I really appreciate your comment! I'm glad to know that my article was helpful and a useful tool to take to your doctor. Things happening in the brain contribute to anxiety, and then we feel anxiety in our heads because of it! My own brain can feel like a pinball machine, too, which is why I used the analogy. :) I wish you luck as you explore this very real thing -- that is bothersome but can be overcome.

Hilary Sweetman
says:
February, 26 2014 at 6:14 pm

Just read this article and would like to say thank you, I knew there was an explanation some where.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

February, 27 2014 at 3:58 pm

Hi Hilary,
I'm so glad that you found this helpful! Thanks for commenting -- enjoy comments and discussions.

Connie Smith
says:
March, 2 2014 at 12:35 am

I like this article. I had been wondering if I could somehow make this go away just by thinking differently. If anxiety can't hurt us then can't we trick ourselves, so to speak into thinking it's not there.?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 3 2014 at 6:08 pm

Absolutely! In fact, what you mention is known as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and it's a proven technique for helping all sorts of things, including anxiety. You've got a great start already because you just captured the gist of it. Except don't think of it as a trick because that can imply sneakiness or lies. With CBT, people look for the truth and find evidence to support it. Your truth is that anxiety can't hurt you. You know this, even when you experience anxiety anyway. So start to look for evidence to prove it -- such as things you are able to do to survive anxiety. Then the new truths you've proven can affect your behavior. There is technically more to it than this, but this is the essence of it. CBT really is an effective component to reducing anxiety. It helps change the way the pinball machine lights up (or doesn't light up). Thanks for sharing your thought!

Colin Goeorge Matthews
says:
March, 2 2014 at 8:42 am

First,thank you so much for your work which is undoubtedly helping me in my attempt to be the best I can.
I love the analogy which is one I've used to describe my journey in life.Very little planning luck and opportunities presented and I moved through life with ease if not much forethought.Following a brain injury my life has spiraled down to isolation,self imposed,anxiety and depression.
The ability to think quickly,see connections,read people and communicate is now shrunk to micro examination of my situation.I constantly change my mind,direction,activity and can blurt out some thought or message which I feel at that minute.Deadly , so I stay home and look at the hundred jobs in progress that is my life.
Hey ho and so it goes,
love from Caerffili north of Cardiff WALES>

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 3 2014 at 6:18 pm

Hi Colin,
I'm glad to know that Anxiety-Schmanxiety is a helpful column. I'm sorry to learn of your brain injury. I can relate at least a little bit (although I would never be so presumptuous as to say I know exatly what it's like to be you), as I experienced a brain injury years ago in a car accident. It was such that I was able to recover, but for awhile it was very problematic and frustrating. Such a drastic change in functioning/processing that you describe can be disheartening, and it make sense that you want to just stay home. You don't have to resign yourself to this if it isn't the life you want. There are activities that can be done to help your brain recover (simply Googling "traumatic brain injury," "traumatic brain injury recovery activities," etc. should yield results. Is there someone, even just one person, that you could reach out to for support and friendship? I've mentioned this before in comments about other things, but it applies to so much that I'll mention it here: many communities have brain injury support groups. These can be very helpful and can be a place to connect to people who understand. Just some thoughts. Thanks for commenting. I hope you continue to find this to be a helpful place.

Kevin
says:
June, 30 2014 at 9:55 am

Wow it is in your head! Don't nobody want to be told that you are doing something wrong until u do it right u can't understand the difference. That's why the want to put u on meds! Until u can learn how to stop your state of panic! First u have to understand why u panic or what triggers it! Stress for instance can cause the body to do a lot of things wrong the body doesn't understand what's going on! I'm not a doctor but I have helped people through this! You don't need meds for every everything just some understanding about yourself! Staying happy helps the most!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

June, 30 2014 at 5:39 pm

Hi Kevin,
You're definitely right -- there are things underlying our anxiety, and those things (like stress) can really impact the body. While medication is sometimes necessary, sometimes it isn't. Working to find balance, self-understanding, and happiness plays a big role in reducing anxiety. And reducing anxiety contributes to balance, understanding, and happiness! It's a dance, and it's a dance that we all can learn! I appreciate your comment!

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