What happens to the brain biochemically when we experience anxiety

L’anxiety it is an emotional state that acts like biological response And psychological essential for stress, preparing the individual to face threats and uncertain situations. This alert response can manifest itself as increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, dilated pupils and increased alertness, all reactions essential for a rapid response to danger. However, it can also become dysfunctional and lead to anxiety disorders, particularly when avoidance behaviors excessively limit exposure to situations perceived as risky. In modern life, consisting of many strong stimuli, the alert system is often activated excessively and can be the cause of chronic stress and anxiety disorders.

Origin and functions of anxiety

Anxiety takes different forms functions crucial, both from an evolutionary point of view and in terms of individual adaptation. It acts as a warning mechanism that prepares the individual to respond potential threats or situations of uncertainty. This state of alert manifests itself by different signals, such as a increased heart rate cardiac, greater vigilance and the preparation of reflexesall aimed at improving the ability to react to danger.

Behaviorally, anxiety contributes to avoiding situations that may be perceived as threatening. This avoidance behavior, although it can limit exposure to real risks, can become dysfunctional if they are excessively limiting, as in the case of people suffering from anxiety disorders or severe phobias.

In this sense the polyvagal theoryformulated by Stephen Porges, suggests how, in modern society, Alarm system and often excessively activated due to chronic stress and constant exposure to potentially threatening stimuli (work, social pressures or simple urban stimuli such as traffic and crowds).

This hyperactivation can lead to a deregulation of the autonomic nervous system, making it more difficult for the ventral vagal system to promote states of calm and safety, while the sympathetic system remains excessively active (fight-flight). As a result, many people may find themselves in a state of chronic anxiety you hate hypervigilance with no real solution or escape route, because the threat is not as tangible or immediate as the physical dangers our ancestors may have encountered.

Anxiety from a neurobiological point of view: the neurotransmitters involved

From a neurobiological point of view, anxiety manifests itself through a complex network of chemical reactions in the brain, at the center of which we find neurotransmitters, chemicals that enable communication between neurons. The main actors in this scenario are the GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), glutamateTHE serotonin and the norepinephrine.


GABA, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter of the central nervous system, plays a key role in the regulation of anxiety. Low levels of GABA are associated with increased neuronal activity, which can lead to anxiety. On the contrary, glutamate, the main excitatory neurotransmitter, when in excess, can worsen anxiety responses.

Serotonin, often associated with mood regulation, also plays an important role in modulating anxiety. Low levels of serotonin are linked to greater susceptibility to anxiety, which is why many anti-anxiety treatments aim to increase its levels. Norepinephrine, involved in “fight or flight” reactions, regulates attention and arousal; its imbalance can therefore contribute to anxiety disorders.

Hormones and brain regions: the other protagonists

In addition to neurotransmitters, hormones such as cortisol, released in response to stress, play a crucial role in anxiety. Cortisol mobilizes energy resources of the body during periods of stress, thereby increasing gluconeogenesis (glucose production) in the liver and reducing the use of glucose by other cells. This provides energy available immediately on brain and have musclespreparing the body for a rapid and effective response to potential threats, an essential mechanism for survival.

Cortisol has an effect immunosuppressant, reducing inflammation and limiting the immune response. Although this may seem counterproductive, it serves its purpose. prevent an excessive immune reaction and tissue damage during times of acute stress. However, chronically high cortisol levels can weaken the immune system, increasing vulnerability to infections and disease, which may explain the greater organic vulnerability typical of somatization in those who suffer from anxiety.

>>What happens in the brain when we are stressed by cortisol>>

Cortisol can therefore be considered as a biological indicator from the state of stress of the organism. High cortisol levels are often associated with anxiety and related disorders. When cortisol stays high for too long, it can contribute to a state of chronic anxietyleading to generalized anxiety disorder or other stress-related disorders.

Finally, cortisol alters certain important brain areas. L’tonsilin particular, is central in the assessment of threats and in the generation of the fear response, while theseahorse it is involved in memory formation, including memories related to anxiety-inducing experiences. High levels of cortisol lead to excessive sensitivity of the amygdalawhich can be correlated with frequent alert states.

In search of balance: care and therapies

Understanding the biochemical mechanisms of anxiety is essential to developing effective treatments. THE pharmacological approaches I am currently included benzodiazepineswhich increase the effectiveness of GABA, and SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), which increase serotonin levels in the brain. The effectiveness of the pharmacological component is all the more accentuated as it is accompanied by psychotherapeutic courses targeted: cognitive-behavioral therapy is one of them, the objective of which is change patterns of thinking and behavior which contribute to anxiety; or even a Strategic approachfocused on the identification of real and contingent conditions for avoidance and management of triggers anxiety inducing.



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