Anxiety: It's In Your Head (Your Brain!)
Wednesday, February 19 2014 Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
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.
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.