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Anxiety in the Brain

When we encounter a startling or frightening stimulus, our thalamus sends a message to our amygdala, the most primitive part of our brain. The amygdala, in response, goes into a hard-wired Fight-Flight-Freeze response, before the parts of our brain responsible for higher thought processes even receive notification. Our hearts race, we sweat, and our breathing becomes heavy, and of course, our startle response kicks in! I notice this type of response frequently on my walks around my neighborhood. Somehow, every little squiggly stick triggers this response. I jump, squeal, and my heart begins to race. Then, my higher cognitive functions kick in to inform me that the squiggly stick is not a snake and everything goes back to normal. This is a protective response designed to keep me safe.

Sometimes, however, this Fight-Flight-Freeze system, referred to as the sympathetic system, goes into overdrive when there is no potential threat. Even more debilitating is when this system seems to get stuck in overdrive. Can you imagine having this response when there is no threat? Worse yet, can you imagine feeling this way a majority of the time? If you can, you are likely one of the many individuals in the United States with some type of anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental illnesses in the US, with nearly one-third of Americans reporting some related symptoms. Symptoms of anxiety include those mentioned above, as well as excessive nervousness, worry or fear, fogginess, feeling detached from your body, apprehension or sense of impending doom, tension, stress, difficulty concentrating, racing thoughts, frightening day dreams, nightmares, overly self-conscious, overly sensitive to criticism, tightness in the chest, tingling appendages, upset stomach, restlessness, tight muscles, trembling, feeling dizzy or light-headed, headaches, hot flashes or cold chills, and fatigue. None of these symptoms alone, are enough to diagnose and anxiety disorder, but if you are having any of these symptoms and are unable to explain their presence physically, it’s important to get help.

Even if you feel anxiety is not interfering with your ability to perform needed tasks and enjoy life, it still takes a toll on your body. When your sympathetic system frequently remains in overdrive for extended periods of time, your body over-produces cortisol, otherwise known as the stress hormone. Too much cortisol in your body can result in:

  • Impaired cognitive functioning

  • Suppressed thyroid functioning

  • Blood sugar imbalances

  • Decreased bone density

  • Decreased muscle tone

  • High blood pressure

  • Decreased immunity

  • Increased abdominal fat

There are several options for managing anxiety, some of which you can implement yourself:

  • Learn and practice relaxation exercises such as deep muscle relaxation, positive visualization, meditation, yoga or diaphragmatic breathing.

  • Reduce your commitments and learn to say “no.”

  • Manage your negative self talk with positive affirmations.

  • Schedule regular “me” time to get a massage, read a book…

  • Listen to soothing music.

  • Keep your environment as soothing as possible (organized, soothing colors…)

If you need help implementing these strategies, seek help from a professional counselor who can help you sort through the barriers and provided the needed tools. If you are practicing all of the above suggestions and are still struggling with anxiety we suggest you try neurofeedback as an alternative to medication. Neurofeedback is minimally invasive and very successful in treating anxiety. Neurofeedback focuses on your brain, where anxiety begins. If you would like to learn more about neurofeedback, check out our web-site: We also offer free 30 minute consultations for anyone interested in neurofeedback. Give us a call at 402-502-1716 to schedule your free consultation!

Trish Carter, LIMHP, LPC, BCN

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