When you feel anxious, your body responds. Your heart beats faster, your blood pressure rises, and your stress response triggers a cascade of physical changes. Even though these physical changes are natural and necessary for survival when they happen often and in response to ordinary stimuli (such as the sight of a spider or an awkward conversation), they can become a problem. This feeling of anxiety is known by many as the “fight or flight” response because it triggers two very different sets of actions depending on the type of danger we face. If we sense that we are in imminent danger from another person or animal, then our body will trigger the release of adrenaline so that we can either “fight” the threat with strength and speed beyond normal capacity, or “flight” away from it as fast as possible.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is the feeling of worry, nervousness, and uneasiness about the future. Anxiety disorders are a group of mental illnesses that trigger constant worry and fear. They are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting about one in every five people at some point in their lives. These disorders are serious and have the potential to disrupt daily life and make it difficult to accomplish daily tasks. Most people who are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder can reduce their symptoms and regain control of their lives with treatment.
Types of Anxiety Disorders include:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Social Anxiety Disorder
- Panic Disorder
- Specific Phobias
Effects of anxiety on the body
Anxiety produces an increase in the heart rate, rapid breathing, and muscle tension. The stress hormone adrenalin is released from the adrenal glands, causing increased blood flow to the muscles, an increase in sugar in the bloodstream, and an increase in blood pressure. The adrenal response is generally helpful in dealing with stressful situations, but when it is excessive or occurs too frequently, it can contribute to health problems. It is estimated that more than 18% of Americans are affected by anxiety disorders, making it the most prevalent mental illness in the United States today. A person experiencing anxiety may have rapid, shallow breathing, which may be accompanied by a sensation of tightness in the chest or shortness of breath. Muscles may tense up, making it difficult to relax or sleep.
Symptoms of Anxiety
- Muscle tension – When you’re anxious or stressed, your muscles may start to contract and spasm. You might feel your shoulders getting tight or your lower back contracting if you sit in a certain position for too long. You might also start to clench your jaw or teeth as a result of anxiety.
- Shortness of breath – Anxiety might cause you to feel like you can’t get enough air. This is called dyspnea. It can lead to hyperventilation, which is an over-breathing pattern that can trigger feelings of lightheadedness and tingle in your fingers and toes.
- Racing heartbeat – When you’re anxious, your heart rate may quicken. This can make you feel like your heart is racing.
- Sweating – Anxiety can trigger sweating, particularly in your hands, feet and armpits.
- Trouble sleeping – Anxiety can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. It may also lead to nightmares, waking up early in the morning or not feeling refreshed after a full night’s sleep.
Risk factors of Anxiety
- Family history – If someone in your family has experienced an anxiety disorder, you may be more likely to develop one.
- Genetics – Studies have found that serotonin transporter (a chemical in the brain that helps regulate mood) variations are linked to anxiety. But anxiety disorders can be treated.
- Stressful events – Experiencing stressful life events (such as a death in the family, a breakup, or financial difficulties) can trigger anxiety.
- Negative thinking – Beliefs about yourself or the world around you can affect your mood, causing you to feel anxious.
- Substance abuse – Using alcohol, drugs, or caffeine can make you anxious or prevent you from feeling your anxiety symptoms.
Treatment for physical symptoms of anxiety
- Breathing exercises – Taking slow, deep breaths can help you slow your heart rate, relax your muscles and calm your mind.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy – This type of therapy can help you recognize the patterns and thoughts in your life that make you feel anxious. From there, you can learn how to change these patterns.
- Exercise – Exercising regularly can help you manage your anxiety by reducing stress and improving your mood.
- Medication – Your doctor may prescribe low-dose antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, or beta-blockers as a way of managing your anxiety.
- Nutrition – Eating a healthy diet can improve your mood and help you cope with anxiety.
- Sleep – Getting enough sleep can help you manage your anxiety.
- Therapy – Talking with a therapist can help you learn how to manage your anxiety and repair damaged relationships.
But anxiety can be treated, and the sooner it is recognized, the better. Managing stress, improving sleep and diet, increasing exercise, and talking with a therapist or counselor are all helpful ways to manage anxiety. Be mindful of your health, and if you’re feeling anxious, speak to your doctor about it.