Updated: Oct 1
When people think of anxiety, they automatically think about the mental and emotional effects. Those overwhelming thoughts can be debilitating in themselves, but those of us who have suffered anxiety know that they are accompanied by many physical symptoms, too.
The physical effects of anxiety are known as the "stress response". You have probably heard it described as the “fight or flight” response. It is designed to protect us by preparing our bodies to fight the danger or run away from it. What happens when we perceive a threat takes place very quickly and automatically before we even have a chance to consciously assess the situation. It is a very useful response and has kept man alive all these years, since we were living in caves. Of course, in those days, it worked brilliantly as the threats we came across were life threatening. If, for example, you were out gathering wood and suddenly came across a lion or bear, the threat would be immediate and life threatening and you would need to run…very quickly! This stress response has protected our species against much stronger and faster animals which undoubtedly would have wiped us out if our bodies had not reacted in such a dramatic way.
What Happens in the Brain?
When we perceive a threat, whatever that might be, a part of our brain called the amygdala is alerted and sends a distress signal to another part called the hypothalamus, which is a kind of command centre in the brain. The hypothalamus communicates with the rest of the body via the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This sets off something called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which sends signals to the adrenal glands, which in turn begin to pump adrenaline and other useful chemicals into the blood stream.
What Happens in the Body?
Our bodies are amazing machines that are designed to keep us alive and safe in the event of danger. When you break down the physical responses, it is incredible how various body parts work together to prepare us to run or fight. Learning about these physiological changes, why they occur and what you can do to stop them, makes them a lot less frightening.
Why Does My Heart Race?
When you feel threatened your heart speeds up to allow blood to be pumped quickly to the major muscle groups, giving you the power to fight or run away. However, if you have nothing to physically fight against or literally run away from, this speeding heart actually makes you feel more anxious and can lead to feelings of panic.
Recognise what is happening, stop for a moment, relax your body and take some deep breaths to slow that heart rate down.
Why Do I Feel Short of Breath?
As your heart beats faster, your breathing may increase to give you more oxygen. Again, if you are physically running or fighting, this is useful. It isn't so useful if you are getting stressed about an exam or social event. Breathing too quickly can lead to hyperventilation which just increases the feelings of anxiety. It can make you feel dizzy, faint or light-headed and lead to tingling sensations, shaking or weakness in the body.
If this does start to happen, try to recognise it for what it is (your body trying to protect you) and take some time to calm yourself down. It is important to practise slow, deep breathing exercises, such as abdominal breathing. Slowing down your breathing will help your heart to slow down and your Parasympathetic Nervous System to take over again, helping you feel calmer and more relaxed.
Why Do I Feel Sweaty?
As your body prepares for fight or flight it realises that if you are going to be physically exerting yourself, you will need to stay cool. So, it produces that excess sweat in preparation. Not great if you are already feeling nervous about walking into a room full of people or are about to give a speech or presentation.
Why Does My Stomach Churn?
Stress and anxiety can really take a toll on your digestive system. When you sense danger, some of the hormones and chemicals released by your body enter your digestive tract, where they interfere with digestion. They have a negative effect on your gut flora (microorganisms that live in the digestive tract and aid digestion) and decrease antibody production. The resulting chemical imbalance can cause a number of gastrointestinal conditions such as nausea, diarrhoea, constipation, indigestion, cramps, IBS and ulcers.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
When the perceived threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), also known as the "rest and digest" system (the system that usually keeps everything in balance) kicks back in and gradually reduces your heart rate and returns everything back to normal. The longer the threat lasts or the more severe it is perceived to be, the longer your body takes to return to normal.
The Dangers of Long-Term Stress or Anxiety
The problem we have in today’s society is that we are very rarely faced with life threatening situations, but our stress response behaves in exactly the same way, no matter the stressor. This means that we can experience these changes in our physiology in response to stress at work, money worries, relationship problems etc. If we don’t learn to control this stress, it can cause long-term health concerns.
How Does Long-Term Stress and Anxiety Affect the Body?
Impaired Immune Function
When we feel anxious, our body releases a chemical called "Cortisol" which is really useful if you are running for your life as it can alter or shut down functions that aren't needed in that moment. These functions might include your digestive or reproductive systems, your immune system, or even your growth processes.
Of course, long-term production of Cortisol is not so helpful and can actually be very damaging. It can lead to headaches, insomnia, weight gain, heart disease, digestion issues and IBS, depression, memory and concentration problems and auto-immune diseases as well as increased susceptibility to colds and flu.
It is important to learn how to turn off this stress response and finds ways of helping your body and mind to relax.
Try this simple but effective breathing exercise. You can practise this daily to keep yourself feeling calm and relaxed and also use it when you do feel that anxiety starting to rise.
Abdominal breathing requires you to breathe deeply into your tummy which causes the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle at the base of the lungs, to tighten and move down. This gives more space in your chest cavity and so allows your lungs to expand more fully.
We are all born knowing how to breathe into the diaphragm but as we get older, we get used to shallower chest breathing. Breathing more deeply means that we breathe in more oxygen and release more carbon dioxide. This has many health benefits such as lowering blood pressure. It may feel strange at first, but try practising for just a few minutes each day.
Put one hand on your chest and the other on your tummy, just below your rib cage. As you practise this technique you should feel your tummy moving up and down, rather than your chest.
Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose and feel your tummy rise. Do this just as much as is comfortable, but don’t force it.
Purse your lips slightly and blow out slowly through your mouth. You should feel the abdomen move back down to its normal position.
Repeat this exercise for a few minutes each day either sitting in a chair or lying on a bed or yoga mat.
Hypnotherapy For Relaxation
Hypnotherapy is a great way to relax and calm your body and your mind.
My hypnotherapy programme can be completely tailored for you so that you can finally overcome those anxious feelings and find your inner confidence. If you'd like to know more, book an initial consultation and full assessment session using the button below.