Anxious Brain vs Normal Brain

anxious brain vs normal brain

Table of Contents

Ever feel overwhelmed with worry for days at a time? Does your brain constantly bombard you with a barrage of anxious thoughts that you just can’t silence? If so, you are not alone! anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health conditions, impacting over 40 million adults in the US. The truth is, a little anxiety is a normal part of life. Our brains are built to find danger and keep us protected. The problem is when your brain mistakes normal life events for dangerous threats and kicks into overdrive.

If you find yourself frequently worrying for days on end, it could be a sign your anxious brain needs some rebalancing. The good news is that there are effective anxiety treatments in Colorado that can help get your anxiety under control.

The Difference Between Normal Worry and Anxiety

anxious brain vs normal brainWhen you’re worrying excessively, it can feel like anxiety. But there are key differences in what’s going on in your brain. Normal worry is a response to a specific concern, like an upcoming work presentation or test. Once the event passes, your worry subsides.

In anxiety, your brain goes into overdrive. The chemicals and pathways responsible for anxiety become very active and can last for a long time. Anxiety can persist or return even after the original cause or stress is gone,  and it may stick around despite efforts to relax.

While worrying is normal and, in some instances, even helpful, with anxiety, your anxiety meter is stuck on high alert. It can significantly impair your ability to carry out daily activities, work, and maintain relationships, and it may lead to avoidance behavior, procrastination, and a reduced quality of life.

Anxiety, if left untreated, can worsen over time. Seeking professional help like therapy or medication is crucial to managing and alleviating its symptoms. Don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor; there’s support available, and you don’t have to face anxiety alone.

What are the Mental Symptoms of Anxiety?

Anxiety can manifest in a wide range of mental symptoms, which can vary in severity from mild to severe. These symptoms may interfere with an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and overall mental well-being. Common mental symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Excessive worry
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Racing thoughts
  • Catastrophizing
  • Irritability
  • Fear and apprehension
  • Anticipatory anxiety
  • Perfectionism
  • Obsessive thoughts and compulsions
  • Phobias
  • Social anxiety
  • Panic attacks

Neurotransmitters and Anxiety

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that play a crucial role in the communication between nerve cells (neurons) in the brain and the rest of the body. They are involved in various physiological and psychological processes, including those related to anxiety. Some key neurotransmitters associated with anxiety are:

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)

GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps calm and reduce neuronal excitability in the brain. Low levels of GABA are associated with anxiety disorders because reduced inhibition can lead to increased nervousness and anxiety.


Serotonin is often referred to as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter. It regulates mood, emotion, and sleep. An imbalance in serotonin levels has been linked to various anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder.

Norepinephrine (noradrenaline)

Norepinephrine is involved in the body’s “fight or flight” response. It plays a role in increasing alertness and readiness for action, which can contribute to the symptoms of anxiety when levels are elevated or dysregulated.


Dopamine is associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. In some cases, excessive dopamine activity may be linked to anxiety, especially in situations where an individual is excessively focused on reward or worried about potential negative outcomes.


Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter that can lead to increased neural activity when present at high levels. Dysregulation of glutamate is associated with anxiety disorders, particularly with the brain’s fear circuitry.


While not a neurotransmitter, cortisol is a hormone released in response to stress. Elevated cortisol levels over an extended period can contribute to anxiety and other mental health issues.

Anxiety and Brain Activation

anxious brain and normal brain difference

Anxiety is a complex emotional experience, and understanding how it affects both the mind and the body is crucial. The mental and physical aspects of anxiety vary between individuals, leading to a diverse array of symptoms and responses.

In the mental realm, individuals with anxiety may grapple with a continuous stream of worrying thoughts. These thoughts can encompass a range of concerns, from everyday stressors to more pervasive fears about the future. This mental strain can be quite exhausting, leading to cognitive difficulties such as trouble concentrating and making decisions. Studies have revealed that when individuals have these worrisome thoughts, the left hemisphere of their brain becomes more active as it grapples with the cognitive aspects of anxiety.

On the flip side, the physical expressions of anxiety can be just as challenging to deal with. Individuals with anxiety often feel their heart racing, their palms getting sweaty, and they might even have full-blown panic attacks. These sensations can be distressing and may prompt a person to respond with actions such as pacing, fidgeting, or seeking a safe space. When these physical symptoms become the main focus, the right hemisphere of the brain becomes more active, managing the physiological aspects of anxiety.

Additionally, researchers have explored how anxiety connects with specific fears. For instance, think about arachnophobia, the fear of spiders. Individuals with this fear show special brain activity patterns when they imagine coming across a spider. In these cases, specific parts of the brain, such as the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), insula, and thalamus, become more active. This highlights how the brain responds uniquely to specific fears.

Hormones and Anxiety

Hormones play a significant role in the development and experience of anxiety. Various hormones can influence anxiety levels and contribute to the body’s response to stress. Here are some key hormones and their connections to anxiety:

  • Thyroid Hormones: Thyroid hormones, including thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), play a role in regulating metabolism and energy levels. Abnormal thyroid hormone levels can lead to symptoms resembling anxiety or contribute to generalized anxiety disorder.
  • Epinephrine (Adrenaline): Epinephrine is another hormone released during the body’s stress response. It can trigger physical symptoms of anxiety, such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and heightened alertness.
  • Estrogen and Progesterone: Fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone levels, which occur during the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause, can affect mood and anxiety in some individuals.
  • Testosterone: In both men and women, imbalances in testosterone levels can impact mood and anxiety. Low testosterone levels have been associated with increased anxiety symptoms.
  • Oxytocin: Oxytocin, often called the “love hormone” or “bonding hormone,” is involved in social and emotional bonding. Some studies suggest that oxytocin may play a role in reducing anxiety and promoting feelings of trust and well-being.
  • Insulin: Insulin is involved in regulating blood sugar levels. Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) can lead to feelings of anxiety and jitteriness in some individuals.

Hormones can interact with various factors, including genetics, environment, and lifestyle, to impact anxiety. Normal hormonal fluctuations occur, but chronic imbalances can contribute to anxiety disorders. If you suspect hormonal issues are affecting your anxiety, seek a healthcare professional’s evaluation and guidance for appropriate treatment.

Panic Attacks and the Brain

Panic attacks are characterized by an intense and often overwhelming activation of the body’s anxiety response. The brain, especially the amygdala, goes into overdrive, detecting threats even when they don’t exist. During a panic attack, the body experiences a rush of intense physical sensations, like chest pain, dizziness, or choking sensations.

The impact doesn’t stop with the end of the panic attack itself. Following an attack, it is common for individuals to develop anticipatory anxiety, worrying about the possibility of experiencing another episode. This anxiety about having more panic attacks can create a self-perpetuating cycle, making it essential for individuals who experience panic attacks to seek proper support and treatment to break this cycle and regain control over their anxiety.

What are the Treatments for Anxiety?

Treatment for anxiety can vary depending on the type and severity of the disorder. Here are common treatments for anxiety:


  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to anxiety. It is one of the most effective treatments for various anxiety disorders.
  • Exposure Therapy: This therapy involves gradually facing and confronting the feared situations or objects, helping individuals desensitize and reduce their anxiety over time.
  • Dialectical-Behavior Therapy (DBT): DBT is effective for treating conditions like borderline personality disorder and may also help manage anxiety symptoms, especially when related to emotional regulation.


  • Antidepressants: Medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are frequently recommended for the management of various anxiety disorders.
  • Anti-Anxiety Medications: Benzodiazepines like Xanax and Ativan are used for short-term relief of severe anxiety but are generally not recommended for long-term use.

Lifestyle and Self-Care

  • Stress Management: Techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation can help manage stress and anxiety.
  • Regular Exercise: Recovery activities can reduce anxiety symptoms by promoting the release of endorphins, the brain’s natural mood lifters.
  • Healthy Diet: Consuming a balanced diet and avoiding excessive caffeine and alcohol can help stabilize mood and reduce anxiety.
  • Adequate Sleep: Maintaining a regular sleep schedule and getting enough sleep is crucial for managing anxiety.

Get Anxiety and Addiction Help at Jaywalker

At Jaywalker, we offer comprehensive and specialized treatment for individuals dealing with both anxiety and addiction. Our dual diagnosis approach recognizes the interplay between these conditions and the need for a holistic strategy. It involves evidence-based therapies, personalized plans, and a supportive community to break free from substance abuse and effectively manage anxiety. Reach out today! We’re here to help you begin your journey toward lasting recovery and emotional well-being.


author avatar
Stefan Bate, MA, LAC, CCTP Chief Clinical Officer
Stefan Bate, BA, MA, LAC holds a Master's Degree in Applied Psychology from Regis University and is a Licensed Addiction Counselor in the state of Colorado. Stefan has wide-ranging experience in the field of addiction recovery including: working as a recovery coach, therapist, and program director.

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