How Anxiety is Generated in the Brain

April 14, 2021

you are not your anxiety by dr. carly crewe

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I'm Carly - an MD Psychotherapist specializing in women's mental health. I help women feel like themselves again.

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the sled by carly crewe, md

I am super excited about this week’s blog post and episode of Mind Over Motherhood. I am confident that the information in this post is going to help so many women understand their anxiety in a simpler and less threatening way. #win

This blog post is going to explain some very common experiences women have with their anxiety, and will explain to you WHY your brain does what it does.

Disclaimer: You are not here to read neuroscience mumbo-jumbo and I am the furthest thing from a neuroscientist. It’s important to preface this by saying that this is obviously going to be a very simplified explanation.

However, I do think that it is helpful to talk about your experiences with anxiety and how anxiety is generated in the brain.

When we have a basic understanding of how our brain functions, it can help us to understand why we feel the way we do. This is valuable information for everyone.

When we have more understanding, things are less threatening and we feel more prepared and empowered to take action to improve our situation. So in this post, I’m going to break down how anxiety is generated in the brain.

Also, if you are looking for more helpful ways to improve your ability to manage your anxiety, you should check out last week’s blog post on the Helpful Mindset Shifts You Need To Make to Manage Your Anxiety. The truth is: how you think about your anxiety matters. You can truly change how you feel by changing how you think.

SIDE NOTE: If you struggle with anxiety and are looking for ways to manage it better, you also might want to pick up my new book You Are Not Your Anxiety: How To Stop Being An Anxious People-Pleasing Mess. It’s my no-bullshit approach to finally getting your anxiety under control and kicking people-pleasing to the curb. You can get your copy by clicking here.

How Anxiety Is Generated In The Brain

I personally believe that the more that we understand processes that are happening in our brains and bodies, the more empowered we feel to manage them.

I have also been a doctor long enough to see how much more positive a patient’s experience is when they have all the information they can have about their symptoms and illnesses (from a trusted and reputable source, mind you.)

There Are Two Ways Anxiety Is Generated In The Brain

The first pathway is through the amygdala.

Now many people are familiar with effects of the amygdala’s role in the generation of anxiety.

The amygdala (or amygdalae, because you technically have two of them) are little almond-shaped bundles of cells in the bottom of your brain that are responsible for generating the fight-flight-freeze response in reaction to a threat. It has a variety of other functions but for the purposes of this post, we’re going to stick with the amygdala’s role in anxiety.

Through communication with other locations in the brain, the amygdala is responsible for your heart beating fast, your hands sweating and your breathing feeling faster and shorter when you are feeling anxious.

Now, while the amygdala is very powerful in creating anxiety, it’s not a very smart system.

In fact, the amygdala is a very primitive system that reacts automatically to very little information about any potential threats.

The amygdala is basically responsible for generating fear in our bodies and brains and keeping us safe. Keeping us alive is our amygdala’s primary motivation, and it has been quite good at it for the whole of our human history.

Imagine once of your ancestors living in a cave.

It would be very helpful for them to have an anxiety response to keep them safe in a world fraught with threats to their safety. In fact, without one, you might not even be here.

In the words of Dr. Catherine Pittman, Ph.D, “we are descendants of the scared people.” We are basically alive because our ancestors had anxiety and fear.

The Amygdala Is Not Very Smart

The amygdala pathway of anxiety generation is what is responsible for your heart beating fast when you think you see a deer on the side of the road, when you can’t even clearly see it yet. It’s what is responsible for the physical symptoms of anxiety (heart racing, tightness in the chest, sense of impending doom, you know.)

It’s the amygdala that creates the physical symptoms of anxiety when you know something isn’t worth worrying about, but you can’t seem to “not be anxious about it.”

This is basically because the amygdala is not very smart.

The amygdala’s system of anxiety generation is very simple, very primitive and very automatic.

Now to be honest, it is very important for this system to be automatic.

I suspect you would depend on the activation of the amygdala pathway to save you when you’re being chased by a bear or in an actual life threatening situation. You would want your amygdala to activate RIGHT AWAY if you had an immediate threat to your survival, because it’s the amygdala pathway that prepares the body to take action and respond to threats immediately.

It’s also important to know that the amygdala does not respond to logic or information. You can’t talk your amygdala out of being anxious.

The only way the amygdala learns is through experience. If an experience in the past has created negative emotions for you, your amygdala has learned to associate negative emotions with that experience.

If you experience that situation again (even if the situation is not truly a threat), your amygdala doesn’t care.

I often think of the amygdala as if you are looking through very foggy glasses and very sensitive to the slightest chance or sense that there is a threat in your environment.

At the very slightest suggestion, your amygdala reacts.

Understanding the amygdala’s generation of anxiety can explain a lot for women about why they can have something trigger anxiety that doesn’t make any sense to them.

And to explain that process, we need to look at the second pathway that anxiety is generated in the brain.

The Cortex Pathway of Anxiety Generation

When I work with women in Eunoia Medical (my virtual mental health clinic for women), many of them share with me this common experience: “I get so anxious about this particular situation, when I logically know there is nothing to be anxious about. It’s ridiculous!” And then I explain to them why this is happening.

In my book, You Are Not Your Anxiety, I call this The Gap.

The Gap refers to when you know there is no reason to be anxious about something, but yet you still are. It’s perplexing and frustrating.

It’s almost as if there are two voices in your head arguing:

“We should be afraid of this!” {Panic + run!}

“No we shouldn’t. This is ridiculous! There’s nothing to be afraid of!” {Shakes head.}

The Gap can be explained by the fact that there is another player in the anxiety. 

And that player is our CORTEX.

How Anxiety Is Generated In The Brain: The Cortex

The cortex is the top of our brain basically. It’s the smart part of our brain that processes, plans and responds to logic.

The truth is that our amygdala gets information BEFORE the cortex does. The two pathways operate on different time scales. The sensory information taken in from our environment hits the amygdala at rapid fire, and the amygdala responds immediately.

That same information and detail hits the cortex a bit later. This explains why you calm down after you see that the thing in the hiking path you thought was a snake is actually just a stick. 

Once the cortex gets the information about the environment, it has the ability to think logically and actually percieve whether there is a true threat. Your amygdala cannot do this.

Once your cortex has decided, “Nope, not a threat,” you “logically” know that the thing you’re anxious about isn’t really something to be afraid of.

But your amygdala is not convinced. In fact, it’s common to still feel the after effects of amygdala activation (ie. heart racing, sweating, etc.) even once you’ve realized that the thing you thought was a threat actually isn’t.

This explains why you still feel your heart beating fast even after you’ve realized the “deer” on the side of the road is a mailbox.

It’s the same reason why you “know” that dogs aren’t a threat, but you still feel anxious about them.

How Anxiety Is Generated In The Brain: Cortex Pathway

The Cortex Cannot Actually CREATE Anxiety 

I stated earlier that it’s the amygdala that is responsible for the physical experience of anxiety.

The amgydala has connections to parts of brain that make changes in body (ie. to make our heart beat faster, our breath go quicker, etc.) The cortex does not have these direct connections.

Therefore, the cortex cannot actually create anxiety in the body.

But it CAN ignite the amgydala. That is, your cortex can signal to the amygdala that there is a threat, and then the amgydala will create the anxiety response.

How does the cortex do this?


Even in the absence of a true threat in your environment, you can generate anxiety in your body (or your cortex can.)

When we have anxious thoughts, the amygdala responds to them (it’s what it is good at.)

This is why you can experience anxiety while you’re doing completely benign things (like washing the dishes, driving, laying down to go to bed at night.)

It’s because your amygdala believes everything your cortex tells it to be fact. (Remember, it’s not very smart.)

When you think an anxiety-laden thought, your amygdala hears that thought and instantly assumes the thought is fact. It then will jump into protection mode and work to create the anxiety response (with the purpose of “saving you.”)

You can see how this becomes a huge problem if you’re struggling with anxious thoughts a LOT.

I often say to my clients: Your amygdala doesn’t know the difference between what’s going on in your brain and what’s going on in your environment.

So even if there is NO threat in your environment, but you are thinking anxious thoughts, your amygdala responds to those thoughts.

It’s pretty inconvenient to be honest.


How To Manage Anxiety Knowing How Anxiety Is Generated In The Brain

So this is all helpful information for anyone who wants to get their anxiety under better control.

If we realize that there are basically two pathways anxiety can be generated in the brain, we can focus our energy on those two pathways for management.

This looks like a combination of:

These are all strategies I teach in my mental health membership program The Eunoia Collective and in my virtual clinic, Eunoia Medical. 


If you struggle with anxiety and mood changes, you may want to download my 3 Natural Ways to Improve Your Mood That May Surprise You! free guide. Download it here!


How Anxiety Is Generated In The Brain

In this post, we have reviewed the two different pathways anxiety is generated in the brain.

By understanding the contribution of both the amgydala and the cortex in our experience of anxiety, we can feel more empowered and be more efficient in our strategies to manage our anxiety. 

You can learn more about these and more by listening to the podcast associated with this blog! 

In the episode, I review these two pathways in more detail and give you more insights on how to leverage this knowledge to help you manage your anxiety better TODAY!

Did you know that there were two ways anxiety is generated in the brain?


This episode digs into:

  • How anxiety is generated in the brain, including a simplified neuroscience explanation of the two pathways
  • Why this information is helpful when you want to get your anxiety under better control
  • Why you can sometimes feel anxious about something that you “logically know” is not a threat

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