Fear and anxiety are a natural response to danger; it could be the danger we see, the ones we hear about or the ones born out of our imagination. A little fear is necessary to protect us from harm because it causes the hypothalamus to activate the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system, which combine their effects to produce the fight-or-flight response. This reaction speeds up the body, increases glucose levels, energizes the muscles and temporarily shuts down some non-essential systems to focus all the body’s energy towards producing an emergency response.
From the quick batting of the eyelids when a sharp object gets close to the eyes to the pounding of the heart and appearance of goosebumps all over the body when we are scared, we all naturally respond to frightful external stimuli. When the extent of fear is in tandem with the degree of danger the body produces a reasonable response but excessive fear can cause serious psychological problems which sometimes can lead to mental health challenges referred to as an anxiety disorder.
Amygdala and Hippocampus
Many parts of the brain are involved in responding to fear but the amygdala is the central processing unit of fear. It is an almond-shaped brain region made up of a bundle of neurons. It is found on top of the brain stem and lies deep inside each medial temporal lobe. It detects potential danger and sends a signal to other parts of the brain to alert and prepare them for a response. Scientists discovered this effect of the amygdala when they performed some tests on monkeys with a diseased or damaged amygdalas. They found out that those monkeys did not react when predators attacked them.
In the human brain, the Hippocampus is the seat of learning and memory it recalls memories and links them to present stimuli. In Post Traumatic Stress Disease (PTSD) the hippocampus brings back to memory images from previous traumatizing experiences and keeps the person in a constant state of fear and paranoia. They constantly have flashbacks of the life-threatening events and get upset whenever they are faced with traumatic reminders.
Fear, chronic stress and PTSD can damage the brain. They cause a long-term change in the structure and function of the brain. These ultimately result in a disparity between the volume of white and gray matter, anxiety and mood disorders, and learning difficulties.
Low Serotonin in Women Makes Them Prone to Anxiety
Serotonin, scientifically known as 5-hydoxytryptamin, is a neurotransmitter which modulates the activities of the amygdala. It calms the amygdala and reduces the way it reacts to fear. Studies have shown that people with overexpression of serotonin or an increased number of serotonin transporters show less response to fear. Naturally, the concentration of serotonin in women is lower than that expressed in males. This reduced serotonin level is the reason why women are more likely to get frightened than men.
What does Stress, Fear or Anxiety Do to the Brain?
Chronic stress causes steep changes in the structure and functions of the brain, and can lead to the following;
- Learning deficiency
- Memory Loss
- Increased risk of having stroke
- Reduced brain size
- Hormonal imbalance, osteoporosis, and heart problems, caused by excessive cortisol.
How to Cope with Stress and feel better
According to experts the brain can naturally recover from the effect of stress. The following can help you to handle stress and recover gradually:
- Regular exercise helps reduce the release of stress hormones.
- Meditation is a vital tool that can help you take control of your mind.
- A good sleep helps calm the nerves and control the release and effects of stress hormones.
- Eating healthy meals nourishes the body and mind.
- Medical therapy helps people get over PTSD
Fear is dangerous and can affect our health in more ways than we can imagine so we need to guide our minds carefully, avoid dangerous situations as much as possible and surround ourselves with pleasant people and memories which will stop us from reliving our past traumatic experiences.
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