Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health challenges in the world today. If you live with either condition, you know how debilitating they can be on your mental, physical, and emotional health. Anxiety can make you feel stressed, threatened, and fearful and can lead you to avoid certain situations, people, and places. Depression can make you feel worthless and hopeless and can leave you bedridden or battling suicidal thoughts. Luckily, a combination of therapy and medication can help treat anxiety and depression. But if left untreated, anxiety and depression can damage the brain.
The Anxious Brain
Anxiety is your mind and body’s natural reaction to stressful, dangerous, and frightening moments. But when you have an anxiety disorder, your brain doesn’t return to a sense of normalcy when the stress, threat, or danger is gone. Instead, anxiety disorders can trigger your brain’s fight or flight mode even when there’s no perceived danger. This heightened level of anxiety can make your brain hyperactive to threats.
Constantly on the lookout for danger, the anxious brain struggles to reason logically. Unable to problem solve as it should, the anxious brain learns to hold onto past memories that involved stress, threats, and danger. Unfortunately, though, these memories are often based on anxiety-based impulsive responses, leading the brain to rely on its fight or flight mode for everyday situations. As anxiety starts to overwhelm your life, you may start to experience symptoms that can include:
- Excessive worrying
- Difficulty concentrating
- Tense muscles
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Panic attacks
- Irrational fears
Treatment for anxiety disorders can help restore the brain’s normal functionality. But without treatment, anxiety disorders can alter the way the brain functions and even change its physical appearance.
The Depressed Brain
While the anxious brain cries wolf, the depressed brain experiences a kind of chemically-induced vertigo. Depression throws off the brain’s delicate balance, as abnormal levels of neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, start to change the way your brain works. Your brain has a team of three major neurotransmitters that help regulate your mood: dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. When these chemical messengers work together, they change your mood based on the situations and circumstances you experience. Depression disrupts this process, upsetting the careful balance of all three chemical messengers.
When depression starts to overwhelm the brain, neurotransmitters levels either increase excessively or decrease substantially. You can picture a sudden influx of neurotransmitters as frustrated chemical messengers storming through the brain. Conversely, you can think of a sudden drop in neurotransmitter levels as the brain’s chemicals sulking in frustration.
Low levels of dopamine can lead to symptoms like:
- Low self-esteem and a sense of worthlessness
- Apathy toward family, friends, and life in general
- Short temper and angry outbursts
Low levels of serotonin can make you feel:
Low levels of norepinephrine can lead to symptoms such as:
- Lack of motivation
- “Foggy” brain
- Trouble concentrating
On the other hand, too much dopamine can make you feel:
Excessive amounts of serotonin may make you feel:
Very high levels of norepinephrine can cause:
- Panic attacks
- Excessive sweating
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
Whether depression causes your brain to produce too many or too few neurotransmitters, if left untreated, depression, like anxiety, can harm the brain.
How Untreated Depression & Anxiety Affect The Brain
Without treatment, depression and anxiety disorders can cause measurable changes in key areas of your brain. Experts aren’t entirely sure all the ways in which these conditions can affect the brain, but here’s what they know so far.
Anxiety & Depression Can Shrink Areas of the Brain That Regulate Cognitive Function
Brain imaging tests, such as MRIs, show that people living with depression and anxiety disorders have abnormalities in areas of the brain responsible for cognitive functions like problem-solving, memory, and planning and executing activities. But that’s not all. Untreated anxiety and depression can actually shrink regions of the brain, including:
- Hippocampus, the region of the brain primarily responsible for long-term memory. The hippocampus also plays an important role in regulating our emotional responses. Constant, severe mood-altering symptoms cause this part of the brain to shrink. Doctors call this shrinkage “atrophy,” and it’s associated with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. A 2014 study revealed that damage to the hippocampus can also hinder social behavior by preventing you from accurately interpreting and responding to information. Hippocampus atrophy can even affect your ability to use language effectively.
- Anterior cingulate, which plays an important role in how you resolve conflict, exhibit empathy, control impulses, and make decisions. When this area of the brain loses volume, you’re more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. You may also have difficulty controlling your impulses, solving problems, and expressing empathy.
- Prefrontal cortex, which helps regulate your short-term memory and how well you plan and prepare for activities. A shrunken prefrontal cortex can cause short-term memory loss, difficulty planning and executing events, and increased irritability.
Depression Can Cause Inflammation in the Brain
Untreated depression can also inflame the brain. Not everyone who has depression experiences brain inflammation, but if you do, it can lead to severe symptoms like:
- Confusion, agitation, hallucinations
- Paralysis in certain parts of the face or body
- Speech or hearing problems
- Loss of consciousness, including coma
Brain inflammation can also trigger chronic illnesses such as:
- Heart disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
Anxiety and Depression Can Cause Brain Cells to Malfunction
When your brain is in a constant state of stress or anxiety, the stems cells in your brain may begin to malfunction. When anxiety causes these cells to malfunction, the connection between the hippocampus and the amygdala becomes extremely rigid. This tense connection keeps your brain in a constant state of fight or flight response. Studies also show that these malfunctioned cells can make you more prone to other mental health problems and mood disorders later in life.
When depression causes these cells to malfunction, there may be less oxygen flowing in your brain. Reduced oxygen in the brain can cause:
- Brain cell injury
- Brain cell death
Let Us Help You Restore Your Brain’s Health
Here at StoneRidge Centers, we aim to restore the brain to its optimal state of health. Our comprehensive curriculum combines evidence-based therapy, nutrition, and exercise. Anxiety and depression don’t have to control your life. Our expert staff members can help treat mental health and addiction challenges.
We can help you manage anxiety and depression in a healthy way that will prevent further harm to your brain. Contact us today at 928-583-7799 if you or a loved one are living with anxiety or depression. We’re available 24 hours and 7 days a week to answer any questions you may have.
Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies
Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.