“A Brain Gone Wrong: How The Brain/Body Reacts to Anxiety and Stress”

I have decidedly set my mind against being anxious and yet my body continues to show physical signs of anxiety that are becoming increasingly debilitative to me. So I went to see my therapist this morning because I am nearing my wit’s end and he told me about things I could do to calm my limbic system. This in turn has set me to thinking about what is actually going on inside my body since this is so obviously not just a mental thing and I have found the following article to be very interesting and helpful.

~Until Later!


By Dr. W. Dean Belnap

Part Seven of a Ten-Part Series (Find the article in its entirety, beginning with part one HERE)

“I recently chuckled over a newspaper cartoon. A zebra, looking back on himself as his stripes fell to the ground, quipped, “I think I’m having stress!”

Humorous, but all too poignantly true.

All around us we hear people talk of being “stressed out.” Busyness has become the order of the day in this ever-changing, fast paced world as 24/7 news programs flash images on the screen at a flick of the remote— images projected by a media that thrive and survive on evoking and eliciting chronic tension in the viewer.

This tension and worry crescendos as we watch catastrophic events unfold: extreme weather, terrorism, economic downturns, upturns, and overturns, missing children, the traumas and effects of war all play out on the small screen. Anxiety is further augmented by an internal cacophony of personal stressors such as marital conflict, parent/child conflict, employment issues, and financial difficulties to enumerate a few.

In addition, some individuals must deal with the terrible underpinnings associated with physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, deprivation, and personal trauma. Stress and anxiety may also be experienced by those who have inflicted this pain on others. Addictive behaviors, detailed in past articles in this series, are another source of chronic anxiety and stress.

This cycle of stress, in which we all find ourselves to varying degrees, can reach a saturation point, leading to serious mental and physical health problems. While stress will never be completely eliminated from our lives, it can be controlled. That control begins with knowledge. Understanding the truth about what occurs in the brain and body when the stress cycle remains unchecked is the first step in empowering us to break the debilitating cycles of worry, alarm and anxiety.

The Survival Mode of “Fight or Flight”

Sometimes, temporary effects of anxiety and stress are a necessity for our protection and well being. But if prolonged into indefinite periods of time there can be deleterious and even permanent adverse effects on brain and body.

A real or perceived threat can activate a rapid series of connections in the brain allowing the person to deal with protective emergencies which require “fight or flight.” This physiological response is initiated by the basilar portion of the brain called “basal ganglia.” The functions of the basal ganglia are designed to protect the individual through four basic “drives” — that of self preservation, lust, bodily appetite and fear of death. When specifically activated in one of these four functions, the basal ganglia send a message to the limbic system in the central part of the brain — the part of the brain that initially processes emotions.

The emotional “colored” message is then sent to the frontal-prefrontal area of the brain for value judgment and decision making. In a state of alarm the brain transmission is immediate, as the basal ganglia and limbic system have done their jobs putting into place a sophisticated and complex emergency response system. Until the emergency problem is resolved, the prefrontal cortex remains in an anxiety state to direct protected and safety processes.

Stuck in a State of Alert

If the stress factor is provoked too often or prolonged for long periods of time the brain becomes less adaptive. An individual under chronic stress, with no hope of relief from fear or from recurrent negative indulgence, can be constantly on guard and never able to relax. This high state of alert is particularly egregious in children and young adults. The pre-frontal cortex cannot deal with the constant anxiety and begins to slow and shut down.

Like a computer whose circuitry has been compromised in an endless loop, the chemical transmitter for the frontal brain area, serotonin, decreases to the point of poor action ability. The activity of the basal ganglia and limbic system persist in their activity and cannot shut off. The “computer” freezes and the response becomes a sensation of continual unpleasant anxiety — the feeling of being stuck is a literal physiological phenomenon.

This anxiety increases the electrical activity of the brain. The normal brain has a cybernating rhythm that cycles the entire brain at the average rate of 9 to 10 cycles per second. Under stress, that rhythm often cycles to 20-25 per second. This is fatiguing to the brain, particularly to the frontal cortex. The brain compensates by shutting down its activity in the areas higher than above the basal ganglia and limbic system. In other words, the “computer” crashes. The result: depression.

The Fight for Agency

See illustration 1 below

As the depression/anxiety cycle persists, an indefinite number of nerve cells are lost. Like the cartoon zebra, we begin to lose our “stripes.” The basilar ganglia and limbic system then no longer serve the pre-frontal cortex, but take over control of the brain. Decision making and freedom of choice are impaired and are eventually lost. This process is particularly true with addictive disorders as the brain, in a state of chronic discomfort and apprehension, “demands” a repetition of the exciting experience.

Ultimately, the DNA in the nucleus of the nerve cells undergoes change as part of the manifestations of mental disturbances and mental illness. The symptoms of chronic fatigue, apathy, agitation, sleeplessness, and such auto-immune disorders as fibromyalgia are common, eventually leading to physical illness as well.

The Chemical Response

Causes of these symptoms are detailed in the following two illustrations: Upon exposure to stress the nerve cells of the basal ganglia secrete an enzyme called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF). The pituitary gland under the basal ganglia is the master gland of all other hormone producing glands in the body. Stimulated by the corticatropin-releasing factor the pituitary gland releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which passes through the bloodstream to the adrenal gland located on top of the kidneys. The adrenal gland then excretes steroids called glucocorticoids. Glucocorticoids have a marked effect on metabolism, weight gain, weight loss, immune function, heart rate and the behavioral response to stress.

See illustration 2 below…

This second illustration shows the continued flow of corticotropin-releasing factor in mental illness associated with chronic stress and anxiety. The brain/body relationship is kept in an ongoing state of alert. Long term effects on the brain demonstrated by neuro-imagery from functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery scans show significant the slowing of frontal-prefrontal lobe function. More serious effects are the loss of brain tissue. Such changes are the basis of many forms of mental disturbance and mental illness, and help us to more clearly define abnormal ties of sexual behavior, drugs, violence and addictive disorders for all ages.
These physiological descriptions beg the question — can these serious changes be stopped, reversed, and regenerated? Can the zebra regain his stripes? Those possibilities will be discussed in the next series of articles.”



2 thoughts on ““A Brain Gone Wrong: How The Brain/Body Reacts to Anxiety and Stress”

    1. Hi Tony! Thanks for the comment. I don’t know why I didn’t see it sooner. I apologize :). I have up’ed my main med by a little and it in turn has helped with the physical anxiety. At least while I am in my comfort zone (ie. at home). So far the only thing that seems to help me is to keep my brain distracted. Unfortunately for me this means a lot of movies or games. Actively engaging my brain in completely mindless stuff seems to slow my brain down more than anything. Hope you are doing well!

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