How Things Work: Your Limbic System and Anxiety

Friday, December 13, 2013 by Meg   •   Filed under Anxiety

Anxiety responses evolved to be triggered in a number of ways, both physical and psychological. The autonomic nervous system regulates these anxiety responses, regardless of where they came from. But there are a few more systems at play that can help us understand anxiety.

So, what else contributes to anxiety responses besides your mother-in-law?

The Limbic System

The limbic system is the area of your brain which includes the hippocampus, the amygdala and the hypothalamus. This system is responsible for emotional responses and memory, as well as taking outside information and integrating it into our understanding of the world. It helps us decide what to do with the information we get from our senses, including whether we need to panic.

For the decision on full freak-out mode, we ask the amygdala.

The Amygdala

The amygdala is primarily involved in aggression and defensive mechanisms including anxiety responses (think cornered crocodile). Those with damage to this area show little response when faced with scary things and often have trouble with attachment patterns and social responses as well. So not only does the amygdala force immediate defensive action, it also has some affect on regulating connections with others.

Important to remember here is that the amygdala is especially sensitive to environmental cues that may be threats. If it perceives something to be dangerous (whether you consciously recognize it as a threat or not), the amygdala triggers our sympathetic nervous system into action.

Amygdala response is swift, intense and primitive. Triggering this area will not tell you why you are suddenly anxious. Instead, the amygdala's role is to ensure that your body is ready to fight or flee the threat, once the rest of our brain can figure out what that is. Unfortunately, there is a lot of room for misunderstanding, usually in the form of scary thought patterns.

You do not have to initially understand what you are afraid of to panic. What you end up being afraid of is the result of assumptions, correct or incorrect, made by the brain to explain this "self protect first, explain later" response.

Flipping out for no good reason that you can identify? Great. Your amygdala may be a douchebag, but at least it is functioning properly. Now what?

The Hippocampus

To figure out what triggered the panic, we need help from the hippocampus which is involved in learning and memory. Based on past experiences, immediate physical responses (amygdala) and future perception of threats, the body will try to respond appropriately. This means immediate response to any real danger, and returning to normal functioning after the threat has passed.

For that emotional and physical balance, we rely on something else. And it isn't wine.

The Hypothalamus

The hypothalamus' personal ad would read something like "I am generally reasonable and am seeking an even-tempered state of mind. Turn-ons include yoga and calming experiences. Turn-offs include sugar, caffeine and continuous telemarketing phone calls."

While she may not discuss it off the bat (who likes an egomaniac), the hypothalamus also controls the pituitary gland and the autonomic nervous system. Most of us have heard of the pituitary in relation to growth, but the hormones released by the pituitary also have huge implications for anxiety and depression.

The main job of the hypothalamus is allostasis, or finding balance within the body. From regulating body temperature to regulating pain responses, the hypothalamus is a multi- tasking business woman. She spends her time trying to organize an entire corporation into functioning optimally, and calmly, by balancing numerous parts at once.

For every mother out there, that would be more like...Tuesday.

However, if the body isn't balanced, either from lack of sleep, too much stress, too little nourishment or way too many encounters with stupid people, shit gets tricky for all systems.For example, you need enough good fats in your brain to allow transmission systems to function properly, you need a liver that isn't all gunked up with other stuff to provide a way for those stress hormones to get out of the body, and you have to have a balance of stimulation to decrease overreactions of the sympathetic nervous system.

Whole body health is critical to the ultimate reduction of anxiety, because our hard-nosed business woman is kinda sensitive to all the stuff around her. No office runs well when the people in human resources are hiding under a desk, the legal team is starving and the guys in the mailroom are all cranked out on Monster Energy Drinks and Ding Dongs.

If only it could be cured with wine.

Related Posts: 

Topic-Relevant Resources

When Panic Attacks
Detailed overview of cognitive behavioral techniques for changing negative thought patterns