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Our Brains on Anxiety

Updated: Jan 20

DR. ESSLIN TERRIGHENA on how our brain regions interact to create anxiety.

Our brain is constantly monitoring our environment on the look-out for danger, so it can alert us as early as possible and give us the best chance of survival. Most of this monitoring occurs outside of our conscious awareness and only comes to our attention when our brain draws our attention to a potential threat.

Past experiences play a significant role in shaping what our brain considers to be a threat to our survival. Things that have felt dangerous, scary, or overwhelming in the past are saved under threat cues and our brain may be more reactive when these occur again in the future – even in situations in which they are benign and do not represent real danger.

How does this happen?

Our five senses take in information that is sent to a brain region called the thalamus. The thalamus is located in the middle of our brain and communicates incoming motor-sensory information from the senses to various areas of the brain, including the amygdala. The amygdala is part of the limbic system and can be considered our emotion-processing region. If the motor-sensory information holds a potential threat, the amygdala is involved in our experience of intense fear, anxiety, and panic.

Physiological processes are activated by the limbic system that gear our body up for survival reactions – fight, flight, flee or fawn. These reactions are largely facilitated by the brain stem which is responsible for our basic physiological functions and survival behaviours. Finally, the hippocampus takes notes of the situation and stores this emotional memory for future retrieval. Sometimes, the threat cue and the fear are stored, but the wider context of what happened is not. This is why subsequently a single cue alone can trigger an intense anxiety or trauma response, despite the circumstances being unthreatening.

Check out this visual aid created by Ayan Mukherjee for how this may look in practice.

If you are struggling with anxiety and want to find help, please book a consultation with Dr. Terrighena on (852) 2521 4668 or

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