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Author: Peyton DeMaio

The Anatomy of Anxiety: Understanding the Inner Turmoil

The Anatomy of Anxiety: Understanding the Inner Turmoil

By Peyton DeMaio

How To Deal With Anxiety Illustration By Tra Mi Do

Facing panic disorder, social anxiety, generalized anxiety, phobias, or PTSD can often feel like navigating a solitary and perplexing battlefield against an elusive adversary.

For those entangled in worry that seems to tie their thoughts into knots, the question looms: why do people worry? What unfolds in the brain when an obscure concern transforms into a full-blown panic attack, sparking an anxiety spiral?

Therapists, neuroscientists, and cognitive psychologists propose various theoretical models to comprehend the anxiety process and the bodily components involved as anxiety intensifies. ‘Biopsychosocial’ models aim to comprehensively explain the issue, illustrating how the anxiety narrative unfolds across our bodies, minds, and even extends into our social behavior. While these models undergo constant refinement, they share a common feature: the presence of reinforcing feedback loops that escalate anxiety instead of diffusing it.

Where Does The Anxiety Spiral Begin?

The inception of an anxiety spiral lies in stressful life events, persistent worries, or even uncomfortable physical situations or illness. The anxiety-prone mind may disproportionately focus on these thoughts, misinterpreting them as genuine threats rather than mere thoughts. For those experiencing panic attacks, conscious attention may zoom in on specific physical sensations, such as a racing heart, fluttering stomach, or clammy palms, intensifying the panic.

This occurs because these abstract thoughts morph into literal, physical events in the body through the hormonal system. Treating the thoughts as if they were actual imminent dangers, the brain signals the body’s glands to release adrenaline and cortisol, activating the sympathetic nervous system and giving rise to various bodily sensations.

What Happens In The Anxious Brain

The anxiety response is a complex system fine-tuned by millions of years of evolution, designed to help us survive imminent danger. However, factors like diminished cognitive control, a propensity to internalize psychological sensations, genetic predispositions, and the stress of modern life collaborate to disrupt this system, causing it to spiral out of control. At the core of it all are maladaptive thoughts.

Anxiety could be said to start in the amygdala, a region in the temporal lobe of the brain crucial for perceiving emotions, particularly the detection of fear. The amygdala serves as a thermostat regulating the level of perceptive awareness for inner sensations. It is primarily concerned with survival, storing emotional memories of learned reactions to past events to recognize and respond appropriately in the future.

Depending on the emotional arousal state in the amygdala, it triggers the fight-or-flight response, either amplifying or down-regulating the body’s reaction to perceived fear through stress hormones like adrenaline. This process unfolds on the HPA axis (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenals), a network linking the brain and the stress glands. It elucidates why anxiety is an all-encompassing experience, impacting not only the mind but every facet of the body.


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