May is Mental Health Awareness Month here in Canada. The last few years of pandemic life have certainly sparked many more conversations with my patients about anxiety.
Anxiety is the anticipation and feeling of a negative outcome, often accompanied by physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, clammy hands, heart palpitations, and nausea.
Before delving into how hormones can cause or worsen anxiety, let’s first discuss what happens in the brain.
The amygdala, an almond-sized gland in the brain, senses trouble, whether real or imagined. This triggers the sympathetic nervous system to activate, leading to surges of cortisol and adrenaline that protect the body. This response is commonly referred to as the fight-or-flight response, which is a normal reaction to a perceived threat.
An anxious brain is not only a healthy brain but also a little overprotective, making it more prone to perceiving threats. It exhibits heightened activity in the amygdala, an emotional processing center responsible for managing and storing memories and emotions. Unfortunately, it can send signals and release hormones without warning, often activating the fight-or-flight response unnecessarily.
In cases of anxiety, the right brain (emotional side) takes over, resulting in overwhelming feelings and a lack of coherence. The left brain (logical side) is not fully engaged, making it difficult to make sense of things. Anxiety also disrupts the decision-making process by suppressing the left brain.
The sympathetic nervous system instructs the brain to release more adrenaline and cortisol. If there is an actual threat, these hormones would be utilized during physical activity. However, in the absence of a genuine threat, the buildup of these hormones leads to anxiety symptoms. Over time, this becomes exhausting and fatigues the adrenal glands (stress glands), often causing overall debilitating fatigue.
Now, why do some people experience anxiety while others do not? Ongoing research focuses on anxiety and its relationship with the brain and genetics. We are aware of a genetic predisposition, as individuals with a close family member experiencing anxiety are 2-6 times more likely to develop it themselves. Additionally, a recent study identified a significant association between anxiety and a specific single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) within RBFOX1, based on a small cohort of twins.
Knowledge empowers, and in this case, understanding what occurs in the brain during anxiety can help us explore ways to make a difference. To learn more about the role hormones play in anxiety, continue reading.