The Neuropsychology of Stress and Anxiety
Most of us are familiar with the feelings of stress and anxiety… Raised blood pressure, a tight chest, and racing thoughts may be sensations we know all too well. Beginning to sit with and understand these two emotions allows us to handle them more effectively, and taking a neuroscientific perspective is an important first step.
There are a number of causes of the two issues, from deeper-seated trauma issues to increased pressure at work. In short, stress is our body responding to an immediate threat, while anxiety is our body continuing to prepare for a threat that doesn’t yet (or still) exist.
Here, we’ll take a closer look at the neuropsychology of stress and anxiety. We’ll explore in-depth what happens in our brains as a response to these external triggers, and, by doing so, take the first step to addressing them more healthily.
Your brain under stress
Though small amounts of stress can be positive, motivating us towards focusing on specific tasks, neuroscience has shown us that our brains process information differently when we are under significant stress.
When we perceive a threat, we move into survival mode, or “fight or flight.” The amygdala (which is the part of the brain responsible for our survival instincts) then becomes overactive and we may lose some logic and clarity.
As a result, the other parts of our brains have less energy to carry out their specific functions. That is why we may become forgetful or feel disorganised when we are stressed at work, and why we may feel fluctuations in our mood and have difficulty regulating our emotions after a long, stressful day.
Prolonged stress and its relationship with anxiety
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a state that we enter in which the amygdala is consistently overactive, seeking out threats that don’t yet exist and preparing us to respond to them. When we feel anxious for long periods of time, our brains tend to speed up, which is why we may struggle to have clarity of thought or to hold onto our true beliefs.
Prolonged stress can sometimes rewire the brain and the amygdala will physically grow stronger than other areas in much the same way as a muscle would get bigger and stronger from frequent exercise. This keeps an individual in a constant state of survival mode which can be disadvantageous for completing tasks that involve concentration and decision-making.
Managing stress and anxiety
Stress and anxiety play an important role in keeping us alive and thriving, but only when they occur to a reasonable degree. Positive stress – commonly known as eustress – is good stress that ensures our minds and bodies are alert and prepared to deal with a specific challenge or external threat.
However, when we have ongoing stress, it becomes unhealthy for us both physically and mentally. We need to address it as soon as possible to ensure that it doesn’t lead to other, more serious issues.
Use these three tools to manage stress and anxiety. By boosting the function of the frontal cortex (which is responsible for decision-making and reasoning) you can shrink the amygdala back down to its intended function.
- Recognising the stress or anxiety. The very first thing that you can do is to observe any thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and remember that you are bigger than them. This can slow the mind down.
- Breathing exercises. By taking deep, slow breaths we can activate the parasympathetic (restful) side of the nervous system.
- Intentional intervention. Psychologists, Psychotherapists, and Counsellors are trained to provide us with an understanding of our specific struggles. They can help us to gain clarity over that which is causing stress and build up our perspective outside of our anxious thoughts.
Stress and anxiety can completely hijack the brain, and consequently our feelings and performance, but we always have the power to seize control back. By building up the areas of our mind responsible for logic and reasoning, we can stop our minds from racing and learn to handle periods of stress without the long-term effects.
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