You know the feeling: That tense sensation in your stomach, the heightened sense of awareness you have about everything going on around you, the slight fear or sense of dread?that's anxiety. Before your body feels the effects however, your brain is already at work. The National Institute of Mental Health guide to anxiety disorders also offers this description of the neurological processes at work:
Several parts of the brain are key actors in the production of fear and anxiety. Using brain imaging technology and neurochemical techniques, scientists have discovered that the amygdala and the hippocampus play significant roles in most anxiety disorders.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that is believed to be a communications hub between the parts of the brain that process incoming sensory signals and the parts that interpret these signals. It can alert the rest of the brain that a threat is present and trigger a fear or anxiety response. The emotional memories stored in the central part of the amygdala may play a role in anxiety disorders involving very distinct fears, such as fears of dogs, spiders, or flying.
The feeling of anxiety is part of your body's stress response. Your fight or flight response is triggered, and your system is flooded with norephinephrine and cortisol. Both are designed to give you a boost to perception, reflexes, and speed in dangerous situations. They increase your heart rate, get more blood to your muscles, get more air into your lungs, and in general get you ready to deal with whatever threat is present. Your body turns its full attention to survival. Ideally, it all shuts down when the threat passes and your body goes back to normal.
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