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What is going on inside the anxious brain?

PEACE with Anxiety Podcast Episode 13

Ep 13: What is going on inside the anxious brain?

Join me in this episode as we explore the fascinating world of neuroscience and its implications for understanding what is going on inside the anxious brain. I share with you a personal story of my own struggle with anxiety and how diving into the field of neuroscience transformed my perspective and empowered me to take control of my anxiety. We'll start by exploring the nature of anxiety and its prevalence in today's society, highlighting the negative impact it can have on mental and physical well-being. Then, we'll dive into the inner workings of the brain, discussing key regions such as the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus, and their role in shaping our experience of anxiety. Drawing upon the latest research in neuroscience and psychology, we'll offer practical strategies for managing anxiety effectively. From mindfulness meditation and dialectical-behavioral therapy to lifestyle adjustments and stress management techniques, we'll provide tools and techniques to promote brain health and resilience in the face of anxiety.

Listen as I talk about:

  • The significance of understanding the neuroscience of anxiety.

  • My personal journey with anxiety and neuroscience

  • The key brain regions involved in the anxiety response: the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus

  • The role of neuroplasticity in reshaping the brain's response to stress and anxiety.

  • Evidence-based techniques such as mindfulness practices, dialectical-behavioral therapy, and lifestyle adjustments.


Click play to listen below:



The Brain's Role:

The key brain regions involved in shaping our experiences of anxiety are the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus.

The amygdala serves as the brain's "fear centre," triggering the body's fight-or-flight response in the face of perceived threats.

The prefrontal cortex acts as a calming influence, helping to regulate emotional responses and inhibit fear when it's not warranted.

The role of the hippocampus in contextualizing fear responses and encoding memories, as well as the influence of neurotransmitters and hormones on our mood and emotional states


Neuroplasticity and Anxiety

In the context of anxiety, neuroplasticity offers hope and opportunity for transformation. By engaging in targeted interventions that promote neuroplasticity, such as dialectical-behavioural therapy or mindfulness meditation, you can retrain your brain to respond more adaptively to stress and anxiety.

Everyday activities like learning a new skill, practising gratitude, or engaging in regular exercise can also promote neuroplasticity and support your journey toward greater resilience and well-being.


Practical Strategies

  1. Mindfulness Meditation:

  2. Dialectical-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

  3. Exercise and Physical Activity

  4. Healthy Lifestyle Habits

  5. Stress Management Techniques

  6. Social Support and Connection



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Full Transcript


Hello and Welcome back to episode 13 of the PEACE with Anxiety Podcast. In today’s episode, we are going to get a little technical and nerdy. We will dive into what happens inside your brain when you experience anxiety. Now, if you are wondering, why should we bother exploring the inner workings of our brains when it comes to anxiety? Well, let me share a personal story that might shed some light on this question. Now almost 10 years ago, as I was first starting my education in the psychological field, I also found myself struggling with overwhelming anxiety. Now it was a time of a massive change in my life, and It seemed like every little decision, every minor inconvenience, would send my heart racing and my mind spiralling with worry. Simple tasks like going to my classes, calling someone on the phone or attending social gatherings felt daunting, and that constant knot in my stomach became all too familiar. In my journey to find relief, and likely I was already in the best field to help me get some answers, I threw myself into my studies and my books and I quickly became fascinated by the world of neuroscience and its implications for understanding anxiety. What I discovered completely changed my perspective. Learning about the intricate relationship between brain regions and the process of neuroplasticity helped me make sense of why my body and mind were reacting the way they did. But more importantly, this knowledge empowered me to take action and relieve some of that anxiety. So with that deeper understanding of the underlying mechanisms driving my anxiety, I began to explore different strategies and techniques to manage it effectively. From mindfulness practices to dialectical-behavioural therapy, each step forward felt like reclaiming a piece of myself from anxiety. So, why am I sharing this with you? Because I believe that understanding the neuroscience of anxiety, so what exactly happens in your head when you feel anxious, is a powerful tool that is not only empowering and transformative, but it will also help you take back control of your mind and alleviate the anxiety. So today, we'll explore the brain regions, and the process of neuroplasticity that shape our experience of anxiety. And then I will share with you some of the practical strategies that have helped me and my clients to navigate anxiety in this new light.


I'm excited to dive deep into this topic with you, but Before we begin, I want to take a moment to explain what exactly we're dealing with when we talk about anxiety. And you can head back to episodes 1 and 2 to learn more about anxiety. Anxiety is something that we've all experienced at one point or another. It's that knot in your stomach before a big event, or the racing thoughts that keep you up at night. In its essence, anxiety is our body's natural response to stress—a built-in alarm system that helps us anticipate and respond to potential threats. But here's the thing: while a little bit of anxiety can be perfectly normal and even helpful in certain situations, too much of it can create a mess on our mental and physical well-being. And look we are living In a fast-paced world, where we're constantly bombarded with deadlines, expectations, and uncertainties, it's no wonder that anxiety has become so increasingly prevalent. According to recent studies, anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health conditions all over the world, affecting millions of people of all ages and backgrounds. And the impact? Well, it's not just limited to our minds. Prolonged or excessive anxiety can take a toll on our bodies as well, contributing to issues like insomnia, digestive problems, and even cardiovascular disease. In other words, anxiety isn't just a fleeting feeling—it's a powerful force that can shape our lives in profound ways. But the good news is that by understanding the nature of anxiety and its effects on our brains and bodies, we can begin to take proactive steps toward building our resilience to it more effectively. And that's exactly what we're here to explore in this episode. So whether you are struggling with anxiety yourself or you’re simply curious about how our brains respond to stress, stick around as we discover the science behind the sensations. So let's dive in!


We will start with the brain as a whole to understand the secrets behind the anxiety response. So Picture your brain as a complex control centre, constantly processing information and arranging responses to the world around you. It's a remarkable organ, that includes countless interconnected regions, each with its specialized function. So, when it comes to anxiety, several key players come into play but let's focus on three in particular: the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex, and the hippocampus.


First up, we have the amygdala—often described as the brain's "fear centre." This tiny almond-shaped structure, which is located deep inside the limbic system, plays a crucial role in our response to perceived threats. Think of the amygdala as your brain's bodyguard, constantly scanning the environment for signs of danger. When it detects a potential threat—a loud noise, an intimidating gesture, or even a negative thought—it springs into action, triggering the body's fight-or-flight response. In milliseconds, the amygdala sends signals to the rest of the brain and body, unleashing a cascade of physiological changes designed to help you survive. Your heart rate increases, your muscles tense, and your senses sharpen as adrenaline rushes through your veins, preparing you to either confront the threat head-on or make a swift escape. But here's where things can get tricky: for some, this process of threat detection and response can become dysregulated. So, the amygdala may become hyperactive, sounding the alarm at the slightest hint of danger and flooding the body with stress hormones even when the threat is minimal or non-existent. And this heightened sensitivity to perceived threats can lead to a vicious cycle of anxiety, where even daily situations provoke intense fear responses. When you understand the role of the amygdala in anxiety, you can begin to realise that excessive reactions to everyday situations start to make sense.


But here's the interesting part, while the amygdala may be the first to sound the alarm, it's not the only player in the game. That’s when the prefrontal cortex comes in, which is the brain's command centre and plays a pivotal role in decision-making, emotional regulation, and impulse control. The prefrontal cortex is located just behind your forehead, and it acts as the voice of reason. It's like the wise mediator who steps in to offer perspective and guidance when emotions run high. Through a process known as top-down regulation, the prefrontal cortex evaluates the situation, weighs the risks and rewards, and determines the most appropriate course of action. It's this interplay between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex that allows us to navigate the complexities of life with a measure of calm and self-control. However, in some, this regulatory mechanism may become compromised. The prefrontal cortex may struggle to exert control over the hyperactive amygdala, leading to difficulties in managing emotions and making irrational decisions in the face of fear. By understanding the interplay between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, you can start to understand the cognitive and emotional processes underlying anxiety.


But there's one more key player in anxiety we need to mention: the hippocampus. That can be found deep within the brain's temporal lobes, this seahorse-shaped structure plays a crucial role in memory and learning. In the context of anxiety, the hippocampus helps to contextualize our experiences of anxiety and fear, drawing on past events and stored memories to make sense of the present and determine the most appropriate course of action. Imagine the hippocampus as the librarian of your brain, cataloguing your core life events to create a coherent narrative, your memories. In the context of anxiety, the hippocampus plays a crucial role in contextualizing fear responses. It helps to distinguish between genuine threats and false alarms, allowing you to respond more effectively to the challenges you face. For those who struggle with anxiety, the hippocampus may struggle to accurately assess the level of threat posed by a given situation, leading to an overgeneralization of fear responses.


Together, these three brain regions form a complex network that shapes our experiences of anxiety, influencing everything from our initial reactions to our long-term coping strategies. So it is important to understand their roles and interactions because we can gain invaluable insights into how our brains respond to stress and anxiety.


Finally, let's touch upon the concept of neuroplasticity, which very simply is the brain's remarkable ability to adapt and rewire itself in response to experiences and interventions. Imagine your brain as a constantly evolving landscape, shaped by the pathways you tread and the habits you cultivate. Through experiences like therapy and mindfulness to name a few, you can literally reshape the structure and function of your brain, forging new connections and strengthening existing ones. In the context of anxiety, neuroplasticity offers hope and opportunity for transformation. By engaging in targeted interventions that promote neuroplasticity, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy, dialectical-behaviour therapy or mindfulness meditation, you can retrain your brain to respond better to stress and anxiety. But here's the truly exciting part: neuroplasticity isn't just limited to therapy sessions or meditation practices. Everyday activities like learning a new skill, practising gratitude, or engaging in regular exercise can also promote neuroplasticity and support your journey toward greater resilience and well-being. You can literally reshape and rewire your brain, you can leave behind the patterns of anxiety and cultivate resilience and growth.


Now that we've gained a deeper understanding of the neuroscience of anxiety, let's explore some practical strategies for relieving it effectively. Based on the latest research in neuroscience and psychology, here are 5 tools and techniques that promote brain health and resilience.


Mindfulness meditation is a powerful tool for reducing anxiety and promoting emotional well-being. By bringing focused attention to the present moment, mindfulness practices help to quiet the chatter of the mind and cultivate a sense of calm, clarity and control. Neuroscience research suggests that mindfulness meditation helps to calm the overactive amygdala and promote greater emotional regulation. Techniques such as mindful breathing, body scans, and loving-kindness meditation have been shown to reduce anxiety symptoms and improve overall mental health.


Second, Dialectical-Behavioural Therapy offers a comprehensive approach to managing anxiety by combining cognitive-behavioural techniques with mindfulness-based strategies. Skills such as emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness equip individuals with practical tools for navigating difficult emotions and challenging situations. By learning to identify and challenge maladaptive thought patterns, you can cultivate greater resilience and reduce anxiety-related distress.


Regular exercise and physical activity isn't just good for your body—it's also great for your brain. Physical activity has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression by increasing the production of endorphins, the brain's natural feel-good chemicals. Additionally, exercise promotes neuroplasticity and stimulates the growth of new brain cells, particularly in regions involved in emotional regulation and stress resilience.


Fourth, Simple lifestyle adjustments can also play a significant role in relieving anxiety. Prioritizing adequate sleep, maintaining a balanced diet, and avoiding excessive caffeine and alcohol consumption can help support optimal brain function and emotional well-being. Research suggests that sleep deprivation and poor dietary habits can increase anxiety symptoms by disrupting neurotransmitter balance and impairing cognitive function.


Another tip is using Stress Management Techniques: Learning to manage stress effectively is key to preventing and alleviating anxiety. Techniques such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery can help activate the body's relaxation response and counteract the physiological effects of stress. Neuroscience research indicates that these practices can modulate activity in the amygdala and promote greater connectivity between brain regions involved in emotional regulation.


Finally, don't underestimate the power of social support in times of anxiety. Building and maintaining strong social connections can provide a buffer against anxiety and promote feelings of security and belonging. When you engage in meaningful social interactions it stimulates the release of oxytocin, a hormone that fosters trust and bonding, and activates brain regions associated with reward and pleasure.

These 6 practical strategies can create a solid foundation for relieving anxiety in your daily life and can promote brain health and resilience. It’s important to say now that the purpose of all the tips, tools and strategies is not to eliminate anxiety altogether but to learn to navigate it with courage and compassion. With time, patience, and practice, you will be able to cultivate a greater sense of calm, confidence, and control in your life.


So, you made it to the end of the episode, well done! Throughout this episode, we've talked about the role of the key brain regions related to anxiety, like the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus. But perhaps most importantly, we've explored practical strategies for relieving anxiety based on neuroplasticity. From mindfulness meditation and dialectical-behavioural therapy to exercise, healthy lifestyle habits, and stress management techniques, we've talked about a wealth of tools and techniques that can help promote brain health and resilience in the face of anxiety.


As we come to the end of this episode, I want to emphasize the importance of seeking professional help if you find yourself struggling with anxiety. Yes, self-help strategies can be incredibly beneficial, there's no substitute for the guidance and support of a trained mental health professional who can provide personalized treatment and support. I encourage you to apply the insights gained from this episode to your own life, experimenting with different techniques and approaches to see what works best for you. And remember, you're not alone—reach out to friends, family, or mental health professionals for support if you need it. And if you have any feedback or questions or need my support, you can click the link below in the show notes and book a free anxiety relief call with me, where we can discuss how i can help you. Thank you for listening. Until next time, take care and be kind to yourself.

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