Anatomy of Anxiety

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Anatomy of Anxiety

WHAT TRIGGERS IT... When the senses pick up a threat--a loud noise, a scary sight, a creepy feeling--the information takes two different routes through the brain

A THE SHORTCUT When startled, the brain automatically engages an emergency hot line to its fear center, the amygdala. Once activated, the amygdala sends the equivalent of an all-points bulletin that alerts other brain structures. The result is the classic fear response: sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat, increased blood pressure and a burst of adrenaline. All this happens before the mind is conscious of having smelled or touched anything. Before you know why you're afraid, you are

B THE HIGH ROAD Only after the fear response is activated does the conscious mind kick into gear. Some sensory information, rather than traveling directly to the amygdala, takes a more circuitous route, stopping first at the thalamus--the processing hub for sensory cues--and then the cortex--the outer layer of brain cells. The cortex analyzes the raw data streaming in through the senses and decides whether they require a fear response. If they do, the cortex signals the amygdala, and the body stays on alert

...AND HOW THE BODY RESPONDS By putting the brain on alert, the amygdala triggers a series of changes in brain chemicals and hormones that puts the entire body in anxiety mode

STRESS-HORMONE BOOST Responding to signals from the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, the adrenal glands pump out high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Too much cortisol shortcircuits the cells in the hippocampus, making it difficult to organize the memory of a trauma or stressful experience. Memories lose their context and become fragmented

RACING HEARTBEAT The body's sympathetic nervous system, responsible for heart rate and breathing, shifts into overdrive. The heart beats faster, blood pressure rises and the lungs hyperventilate. Sweat increases, and even the nerve endings on the skin tingle into action,...