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Your brain when you're anxious

The brain is very complex! But let’s simplify things a bit, to help you understand what happens in your brain when you’re anxious or stressed.

Diagram of the brain

When you have a stress/anxiety response, three parts of your brain are involved. These are: 

  • Your brain stem – also known as your ‘animal brain’, ‘reptilian brain’ or ‘survival brain’
  • Your limbic system which includes your hypothalamus, hippocampus and amygdala – also known as your ‘emotional brain’
  • Your frontal lobe – also known as your ‘neocortex’, ‘thinking brain’ or ‘smart brain’

So what do they all do?

The Survival Brain

This part of your brain is responsible for keeping you alive. It controls things like: 

Your heart rate

Your breath

Your body temperature

Your sleep/wake cycle

Your movement

    The Emotional Brain

    This part of your brain is responsible for regulating your emotions.


    The Smart Brain

    This part of your brain is responsible for higher functioning and deep thinking. It controls stuff like: 

    Communication processing – reading, writing, talking & listening

    Critical thinking

    Problem solving

    The evolution of our brain

    Our brains evolved when the world was very different – when people were nomadic hunter gatherers, living in tribal communities more than 200,000 years ago.

    Our society and technology have evolved very quickly – much more quickly than the evolution of our bodies and brains.

    So sometimes, our brain can’t keep up with what’s going on, and responds to stress as if it is being chased by a bear.

    What happens in your brain when you're freaking out?

    Watch to learn the science behind feeling anxious.

    How different parts of your brain respond when you are stressed

    Survival brain

    • Prioritises some survival functions, e.g. your heart beats faster so you can breathe in more oxygen, which is important if you need to fight or run away
    • Extra energy goes to your limbs so you can move faster or be stronger

    Emotional brain

    • Your emotions become more intense
    • This is kind of like a WARNING system to help us respond to threats quickly

    Smart brain

    • Temporarily goes ‘offline’ – it doesn’t matter if you can conjugate French verbs or do algebra if you are in danger!
    • The energy that your smart brain would normally use is sent to other prioritised brain and body systems

    “When our brain thinks we are in danger, it responds to help us stay safe. This is called our fight/flight/freeze response. The good news is, once you are safe and calm down, everything in your brain returns to normal.” 

    Amanda, Kids Helpline Counsellor

    If you’re feeling anxious or stressed, talking with someone can really help

    You’re not alone – support is always available.

    If you want to learn more about anxiety and how to deal with it, give us a call, start a WebChat or send us an email today.

    If you need more information for other digital services and resources, check out Head to Health.

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    This content was last reviewed 07/04/2020

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