Understanding the effects of anxiety on our mind and body
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is our bodies natural reaction to potential threat. It readies us to protect ourselves through fight or flight. If these options do not feel possible we may freeze.
In small doses, anxiety is helpful as it allows us to notice a potential threat. It is our body’s way of letting us know that something is wrong. In some circumstances anxiety will help us to be able to manage. For example:
- Feeling anxious before an interview may help us to think of potential questions and how to answer these.
- Feeling anxious before a date may help us to think about what we would/ would not see as acceptable behaviour during this.
- Feeling anxious when walking in an area that we don’t know at night will help us to stay alert to our surroundings.
Anxiety can become a problem when it is triggered too easily, often in situations where there is no threat. It can also be a problem if a person is in a constant state of low-level anxiety, as our body will struggle to switch off and recuperate.
What are the different types of anxiety disorders?
Anxiety disorder is a larger term that includes different conditions, the most common being Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Panic Disorder, Phobias and Health Anxiety.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder
Generalised Anxiety Disorder involves intense worrying most days for at least six months. A person is likely to worry about a range of things, regularly feel tense and restless, and feel like worry will never go away. Other symptoms may include sleep disruption, problems concentrating, tiredness and a short temper.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is made up of two parts: Obsessions, which are unwelcome thoughts, images, urges and worries and Compulsions, which are repetitive activities that someone will enact to try and reduce obsessions and anxiety. Often, underneath OCD is a need to have some control over life, especially if this is lacking in other areas.
Panic Disorder includes periods of intense, extreme feelings of panic, anxiety or fear. Whilst these are likely to last for a short period of time, they may occur regularly. A person may have difficulty breathing, feel dizzy or believe that they are going to die. They may suffer from lower-level anxiety at other times and start to avoid situations that could trigger a panic attack.
Phobias (Specific and Complex)
A phobia is when a person has an exaggerated fear about a specific situation or object. They will see more danger in this than is true. Common phobias include a fear of the dark, injections, flying or animals. Complex phobias are ones which are more disabling for the person as they can occur in a greater number of situations – for example, social phobia (fear of social situations) or agoraphobia (fear of open spaces).
Health Anxiety is when an individual worries about their health so much it starts to impact on their daily life when there is no medical reason for it to. It can include being overly aware of potential health symptoms, worrying about dying and not being able to stop thoughts that focus on illness. A person may seek excessive reassurance from others, including family and doctors.
How does anxiety become a problem?
There are many factors which can impact on feelings of anxiety and make them feel out of control. These can include:
- Life history – growing up in an environment where there was a lot of expressed anxiety may mean an individual becomes more sensitive to this. This could include having a parent with high levels of anxiety, or growing up in an unsafe, unpredictable house.
- Biology – some people have a more emotionally sensitive and introvert character. This can mean that they are naturally more likely to find social situations difficult and pick up on how others respond to them.
- Traumatic experiences – if a person experiences a one-off traumatic event – where they feared for their safety in some way – or are subject to a number of traumas, this can lead to a heightened sensitivity afterwards. They may find themselves getting anxious in seemingly unrelated situations that trigger some aspect of the trauma. They may also be more anxious generally.
- Ongoing levels of stress as an adult – for example, a stressful job or difficult relationship – may mean someone always has a heightened level of anxiety, but this becomes normal, meaning they are unaware of the impact it is having on them. It may come out in other ways, such as bad dreams, trouble switching off or feeling tired a lot.
- Background factors such as physical health problems, family issues, work stress or money worries may affect a person’s ability to manage anxiety when it occurs, making it feel much worse than if these factors were not there.
For individuals who suffer from an anxiety disorder, a mixture of these factors are likely to lead to the development of negative beliefs which trigger anxiety reactions more quickly. For example, thinking ‘I can’t do anything right’; ‘I am weak’; ‘other people are dangerous’ or ‘the world is unsafe’.
What are avoidance and safety behaviours?
If an individual is suffering from an anxiety disorder, they may develop certain behaviours which have the intention of stopping their fears. They are helpful in the short term, as they keep the person feeling a little safer, however in the long term they stop the person from facing their anxiety and can make it worse.
- Talking quickly in a social situation
- Staying very quiet around others
- Avoiding people and places
- Sabotaging a situation – doing something bad so they will not have to do it again.
- Drinking/ taking drugs/ eating
- Biting nails, fidgeting
- Overly apologising
- Practising something over and over in their head
- Telling themselves it is okay if they don’t do very well (erring on the side of caution)
- Switching off and not thinking
- Ignoring problems
- Telling themselves something is not that important
- Creating ‘rules’ i.e. doing things only if they see a sign, as this means they will be okay.
What does anxiety do to the body?
Anxiety feels and looks different for everyone, but general anxiety reactions involve:
- Something threatening triggers the hippocampus and amygdala parts of the brain, accessing connections with past threats. This sends messages to the body that it needs to prepare for fight of flight.
- The body responds by releasing adrenaline and getting energy to the key areas needed to either run away or fight. These include the heart, lungs and muscles.
- Extra energy is created through shortened breath to increase oxygen, increase in adrenaline and glucose and taking energy away from areas that do not need it – the hands, feet, bladder and stomach. This is why a person may get odd sensations in these areas.
- The pre-frontal cortex, which is the planning/ logical part of the brain, is used less – however our thoughts that focus on the danger become quicker to help evaluate this.
- Senses become more acute – including getting ‘tunnel vision’ and struggling to concentrate on other things.
- Often, a person is unable to fight or flight and are more likely to use the freeze response. This then leaves excess energy in the body, which will come out in ways such as being fidgety, feeling dizzy, pacing a lot or snapping at others.
How can I calm my anxiety?
It can be helpful to ask yourself ‘what is the threat for me right now and why?’ This could be external (someone shouting, being asked difficult questions) or internal (feeling embarrassed, thinking someone will think bad of you).
Other techniques include using breathing, relaxation and mindfulness exercises to calm your mind.
Cognitive Behavioural Techniques have a strong evidence base for helping with anxiety. These include methods to challenge any negative beliefs that perpetuate your anxiety, as well as behavioural techniques to reduce the use of avoidance and safety behaviours through graded exposure to your fears.