Anxiety is a debilitating condition, causing sufferers to constantly experience stress, worry, and uneasiness. As a chronic medical problem, anxiety can wreak havoc on your body and your brain, causing panic attacks, heart trouble, and even deadly strokes. Perhaps the most worrying aspect of anxiety is its potential to damage your brain, sometimes even permanently. Read on to learn about ten of the most disturbing negative effects that anxiety can have on your brain.
Perhaps the scariest effect of anxiety on the brain is the increased risk of stroke. When "fight or flight" hormones are constantly on the attack, your heart risk and subsequent stroke risk goes up. In fact, research from Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association indicates that middle-aged men with symptoms of psychological distress including anxiety are "more than three times as likely to have a fatal stroke" than those who do not have problems with anxiety.
Overloading your stress system can have a huge impact on stress hormones. As the sympathetic nervous system (the one responsible for stress) works so hard, some stress hormones just don’t know when to stop. When this happens, and stress hormones are active in the brain for too long, they can injure and even kill hippocampus brain cells. Although all of the parts of your brain are obviously essential, the hippocampus is even more vital because it’s needed for memory and learning.
Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, commonly known as SSRIs, are typically used to treat chronic anxiety disorders. But one aspect of the drugs that’s sure to induce further anxiety is the possibility for memory loss and disorientation as a side effect. There are reports of "memory loss, tics, and jerking side effects" in SSRI patients, with the possibility of long-term brain damage from use of the drugs.
We already know that lingering stress hormones can take out brain cells in your hippocampus, the area of the brain that’s responsible for memory. So naturally, it’s easy to understand that anxiety can lead to early memory decline. This is especially true for elderly people who suffer from both depression and anxiety, as they are risk factors for memory problems.
Academic researchers from the University of Alberta, University of Illinois, and Duke University have discovered that anxiety-inducing distraction can have a major impact on cognitive performance. Clearly, if you’re preoccupied by anxiety, it’s difficult to think about much else. The research clearly showed that there is a "detrimental impact of emotion distraction."
Following along the same lines as cognitive performance, problems with anxiety can cause a lack of concentration. Anxietyfreechildren.com explores the effects of anxiety and concentration on school performance, and has found that stress and fear can negatively impact concentration and school work, making it difficult for students to focus on tasks and find road blocks in their thought process. This leads to low grades, poor performance, and difficulty creating and maintaining relationships with their peers.
Generalized anxiety disorder are at risk for hyperactive brain circuits, an abnormality in the brain. Researchers have identified increased metabolic rates in a variety of areas of the brain in both passive activity and during vigilance tasks, which leads them to believe that patients with GAD are at risk for hyperactive brain circuits.
For many patients, anxiety and insomnia go hand in hand. Anxiety can cause insomnia, just as insomnia can lead to problems with anxiety. This sleep disorder can cause poor quality of sleep and difficulty functioning throughout the day. Insomnia is often one of the first symptoms of depression or anxiety.
With chronic stress and anxiety, your body and brain are kept in an always-on state of alert, which leads to long term effects on the brain. MRI scans have indicated that patients who suffer from chronic anxiety show a "significant slowing of prefrontal lobe function."
In addition to the slowing of frontal-prefrontal lobe function, MRI scans indicate that chronic anxiety sufferers may also have a loss of brain tissue. This change, along with the aforementioned frontal-prefrontal lobe function slowing are "the basis of many forms of mental disturbance and mental illness."