How to Calm Your Overanxious Mind

Fear and anxiety in the vagus nerve can be controlled — here’s how

You know when you’ve been triggered. Once you’ve had time to reflect, you also know that your anxiety or fear was probably an overreaction to a relatively trivial event. It’s easy enough to reason with yourself on a conscious level, but subconsciously it’s difficult to control your emotions.

That’s because you’ve been hijacked.

To be specific, a part of your brain called the amygdala has been hijacked. An “amygdala hijack” is a reflexive response to a stressor, like a knee-jerk reaction.

The amygdala is a cluster of almond-shaped structures that form part of the limbic system near the base of the brain. It is responsible for your emotional reactions, particularly those involving fear and anxiety. It is also responsible for “conditioned fear”, as seen in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The amygdala also activates the stress, “fight or flight” response.

Although the hijack process may be experienced in the brain, it often begins in the gut. That’s because you have a second brain in your digestive system, called the enteric nervous system (ENS).

The ENS consists of a nerve plexus embedded along the intestinal wall, from oesophagus to anus. It is estimated to contain 200–600 million neurons — more neurons than are found in the spine — which is why it’s also known as the second brain. The ENS produces hormones and more than 30 neurotransmitters.

The two brains are connected by the vagus nerve, which is the main component of the gut-brain axis. This is the longest nerve in the body and extends from the brainstem to the abdomen, where it connects to the ENS. It is a significant component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which oversees digestion, heart rate, respiration, and satiety. It also regulates the stress response.

How does the vagus nerve do this? By acting as an information highway along which messages are passed back and forth. These messages involve hormones, neurotransmitters and immune cells and can trigger the chemical reactions that lead to heightened anxiety.

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Image: Manu5/Creative Commons


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