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It’s All In Your Head: The Neuroscience of Anxiety 


Breaking The Stigma and Why It’s Important

The purpose of my Catalyst conference is to raise awareness and educate people about the neurobiology of anxiety. Anxiety is a loose term used too often without the understanding of what it actually means. There is a stigma around the term anxiety, such as faking it or using it as an excuse. I have fallen victim to this when my anxiety has inhibited me to participate in my soccer games because I was so anxious I would throw up. Because of the teasing and misunderstanding I received I want to show people the science and psychology behind anxiety and to show the real effects it has on people. With this project I want to change the conversation about anxiety as not just a feeling but a biological and chemical imbalance. This topic is important to me and other people who have anxiety disorders to see what is actually causing some of our emotional and physical discomfort. I hope that this will create a space where people with anxiety and without can learn about it through a new lense. I want this to be a resource for people to learn more not only about anxiety but how the brain works for everyone’s emotions.


Background

The communication between the brain centers and networks in the brain takes place through neurotransmitters. Relating to emotional responses gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) has an inhibitory effect on emotions and can affect the neurotransmitters from properly working. Other neurotransmitters that affect the pathogenesis of anxiety disorders are cholecystokinin (CCK), galanin (Gal), neuropeptide Y (NPY), oxytocin (OT), vasopressin (AVP), and corticotropin-releasing factor. Many MRI studies have found that these neurotransmitters show a high level of activity in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex with people who have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. There is also a higher level of activity in the Amygdala which is the fear and anxiety proscerer. Which leads to the question why is there more activity in the Amygdala and how does this relate to anxiety?


The Limbic System Explained

  • The Limbic System is the circuit control for emotions. It has many functions such as:
    • Controlling emotions like anger and fear
    • Regulating eating, hunger and thirst
    • Responding to pain and pleasure
    • Controlling functioning of the autonomic nervous system, including things like pulse, blood pressure, breathing and arousal
    • Sensing sexual satisfaction
    • Controlling aggressive or violent behavior
    • Responding to sensory information, especially sense of smell
Function Numbers correlate with numbers below
  1. The Thalamus is the central hub for sights and sounds
  2. The Prefrontal Cortex controls the planning complex cognitive behaviors such as executive function and expression of appropriate social behavior.
  3. The Hippocampus is where your memory, focus and motor control function. Other functions of the hippocampus are:
    • Forming short-term and long-term memories through consolidating information
    • Learning new skills from reward, punishment, reinforcement and failure
    • Recognition of what’s familiar versus new
      Navigation or sense of direction
    • Spatial memory
    • Involved in olfaction (smelling) and tying together smells with specific memories

4. The Amygdala is where the emotions of anxiety and fear are processed.

5. The Hypothalamus is responsible for regulating hormones and maintaining homeostasis. The hypothalamus acts like the “regulator” of hormone control, helps the body maintain homeostasis and sends signals to the pituitary/thyroid/adrenal glands. It gets information from many body parts, including the heart,vagus nerve, digestive system and skin.



What Happens?

First the Thalamus(1) is activated when one of the five senses is present. It then signals the prefrontal cortex(2) which gives these senses meaning. Then it is transmitted to the Hippocampus(3) which stores memories, giving these senses a connection to a memory. Then this memory is transmitted to the Amygdala(4), which decides if this sense, which is now attached with a memory will result in the emotion fear or anxiety. Once the Amygdala decides, it signals the Hypothalamus(5) which initiates the stress response which controls the autonomic nervous system — including the sympathetic nervous system. Which then impacts the rest of the major organs in the body, which increases heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, effects memory, effects the hormone balance such as serotonin, and eventually mood. This is all the hypothalamus’ fight or flight response.


What does Anxiety look like?

When someone has a anxiety disorder the senses all around them affect their brain differently. There is less inhibitory signal and more panic. The senses are still processed through the Thalamus, and then given meaning by the prefrontal cortex. They are then given a connected memory by the Hippocampus. The major change is in the Amygdala. With anxiety disorders the Amygdala is hyperactive, meaning there is more availability to process fear which means more emotional stimuli. When it functions more it treats every sense as a threat. Nothing is accurately processed and everything initiates the fight or flight response in the Hypothalamus. When every sense is treated as a threat the limbic system  has a difficult time keeping up, because it is now hyper active as well as the Amygdala. This cause the hypothalamus to go into overdrive affecting the other major organs, like digestive, heart, and lungs. With all the confusion in the limbic system about what is a threat or not this causes the feeling of anxiety and all of its side effects.

Raising Awareness

The next steps are for people to do their own research to know what is going on in their bodies and in others. Curiosity is important and with the research available there are many answers. Neurobiologists still have lots of research to do pertaining mental disorders and the brain. What you can do is be aware of the biological effects people suffer with. I plan on bringing awareness to my campus and educating others on what I’ve learned and why it is important. This project has helped me realize that my behaviors of anxiety have an explanation and this will help me to communicate with people in my community when I am feeling anxious and what is going on.

WMS Soccer Team

Quick Quiz to test your Hippocampus

Take Quiz  

Works Cited

Patriquin, Michelle A, and Sanjay J Mathew. “The Neurobiological Mechanisms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Chronic Stress.” Chronic Stress (Thousand Oaks, Calif.), U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5832062/#R25.

Noggin, Life. “The Science of Anxiety.” YouTube, YouTube, 29 July 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_jkNmj5S0s.

“Seeking the Neurobiology of Psychiatric Disorders.” Seeking the Neurobiology of Psychiatric Disorders, www.dana.org/News/Details.aspx?id=43191 .

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COMMENTS: 11
  1. April 26, 2019 by Kyra Geschke

    Sophia– This is such a good project, I hope you are so so happy with how it turned out! I loved the quiz you had at the end, it made me really make sure that I understood it. I think that your whole project and idea were so smart and you explained everything so well and carefully. Congrats on a job well done!

  2. April 26, 2019 by Jaren.Manivong

    Sophia- I think this project resonates with a lot of people who suffer from chronic or social anxiety. I am glad you did this as it is an important topic. I think that even people with anxiety feel like it’s all in their heads sometimes, I know I have. Do you have any suggestions on how we can break the stigma not just in general, but also the stigma that has been internalized by people with anxiety?

  3. April 26, 2019 by Evie Tomita

    Hey Sophia! I really liked how you attempted to break the stigma around anxiety by explaining the chemical and biological factors for it, it was actually really interesting! I know that was the main focus of your project, but maybe in the future, you could add more about the symptoms and treatment options for people. Or, how you think people reading this information can affect the world at large. Overall, really good job 🙂

    • April 29, 2019 by Sophia Beardsley

      Thank you for the feedback it is much appreciated. I do regret not doing that I think it would have improved.

  4. April 27, 2019 by Maddie Hatfield

    Sophia- I loved the detail and explanation of what goes on in the brain during anxiety disorder. I enjoyed learning about the symptoms’ appearance in a general setting and also the definitions of the connections going on in the brain during that time. I think it would have been neat if you added the typical treatment options that people diagnosed with GAD would consider. Other than that, great presentation!

  5. April 27, 2019 by Orly.Richter

    It was great to see the neuroscience of anxiety explained. I’ve struggled with anxiety for most of my life, and there have definitely been times where I or others questioned the validity of my mental illness. Seeing your presentation reminded me that my struggle is legitimate, which really helped to validate my difficulties. I think it’s very important for everyone to understand that mental illnesses are not something that people use as an excuse or overplay (although unfortunately this can happen), they are a genuine disability that affects people’s lives. If people realize the gravity of mental illness, than they are much more likely to take it seriously.

  6. April 27, 2019 by Anthea Ching Wun Wong

    Hi Sophia! I really like your approach to tackling the problem of anxiety. I agree that informing people about the situation will help them understand better what people are going through. I think it’s very important that people are aware of the neuroscience of anxiety instead of coming up with possible excuses that lead to it. By doing so, anxiety won’t be overlooked as greatly and people who suffer from it will hopefully gain more support because of it.

  7. April 27, 2019 by Payton

    Sophia – I really enjoyed this presentation because this is something that has always piqued my interest. I am so intrigued by the neuroscience behind many mental disorders, particularly anxiety and I appreciate how you are using the biological side of this mental illness to help people understand why people struggle with anxiety. It definitely adds a level of legitimacy to the illness and I think that is so important. Your research was very thorough and I found the diagram of the brain to be particularly helpful in understanding the important structures and functions. My only question is what would be the best avenue for spreading this information to communities? What do you believe would be most effective in really getting the information to sync in for people?

  8. April 29, 2019 by Sidney.Shah

    Hi Sophia, I loved your page! I really appreciated how you tied the neurobiological aspect to symptoms/what it may look or feel like. I am glad you made this page because in a school environment, the word anxiety is too commonly just thrown around, without people understanding the true meaning or definition, so hopefully, many people will be able to learn more from this well-crafted website!

  9. April 30, 2019 by Jeffrey.Zhu

    Hi Sophia,
    I thought your project is very good! From the beginning to the end your project has been consistent and clear. I really liked how you split your page up, it made it very easy to understand and follow along. You are the first Catalyst Conference project to have a diagram of the human brain and explain it. This not only shows that you have put a massive amount of time into researching but also shows that you have put a lot of effort. One of the best projects i have seen, great job!

  10. May 01, 2019 by Maya

    Hi Sophia, I loved your project! I thought that you presented your information well throughout. I really appreciated the diagram with the numbered definitions, it helped me understand the process a lot better. I appreciated how you explained the biology behind anxiety and why your body can respond different ways. I think your project is really important to talk about especially in school. If people educate themselves about anxiety maybe than can seek help or understand what another person is going through. Thank you for your hard work!

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