Symptoms of Anxiety
One major problem with anxiety is that it can show up in our lives in many ways. Some signs of anxiety are more obvious than others, e.g., the constant worrying, the paranoia, and the persistent stress.
Others are more insidious, such as emotional reactions to those we love, a short temper, anger, withdrawal, lack of self-confidence, digestive issues, unexplained pains, tiredness, irritability, obsession, addiction, food cravings or even becoming a workaholic.
All this has the effect of shrinking our world and stopping us from living a full life. We begin to avoid people, places, or experiences that might trigger our anxiety. Our world starts to shrink, and our ability to experience life is greatly diminished.
Why Suffer Anxiety When it can Be Treated?
This is what gets me so frustrated because all of this suffering is completely unnecessary! To deal with anxiety, we just have to learn how to operate and manage our own minds. Unfortunately, managing our minds are skills that none of us is ever taught in school or elsewhere. Think about it; although you spent roughly 14 years in full-time education, not a single day was spent teaching you how to manage your mental health. If all this was done correctly, and we all understood what I am about to show you, then we would dramatically reduce the mental health epidemic we have in modern society.
Your Body Is Wired To Respond to Stress
That posts describes the fight or flight response, or more accurately, the freeze, flight, fight or faint response, as an instinctive and subconscious survival mechanism. This is a mechanism that has evolved over millions of years and served us well as a species.
To trigger the response, we undergo massive biochemical and physiological changes in our bodies. It is these changes that effectively re-allocate the body’s resources to best deal with any perceived threat.
In the section; What is Anxiety, we saw how modern stresses are treated by our primitive brain as if they were equivalent to the imminent physical threats of being attacked by a wild animal. When this happens, there are immediate changes to our biochemistry and physiology.
So what exactly are these changes and how do we interpret or misinterpret them?
Well, let’s have a look…….
The Step By Step Changes Caused By Anxiety
Preparing For Action
“At my signal unleash hell!” – Maximus Decimus Meridius – Gladiator
- Powerful chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline are released into the bloodstream to cause the physiological changes needed to fight or run like hell! The increase in adrenaline makes your muscles tremble and shake, which we usually refer to as having nerves or being nervous.
- Core muscles and abdominal muscles tighten to protect the vital and vulnerable organs in the abdomen. The tightening of these muscles also creates a dominant posture for action. This posture is similar to that of a sprinter crouching at the start of a race, or a boxer about to use his full body to punch.
Becoming Hyper-sensitive & Hyper-Alert
- Senses become heightened as the brain tries to take in as much information as possible through every possible source. Pupils dilate even when it is bright while vision shifts from peripheral to tunnel vision to focus attention on the threat. This extrasensory information can make us feel overwhelmed, dazed or confused and can have the effect of distorting time. Everything will then seem to happen in slow motion or in “the blink of an eye.”
- At a certain level of stress, chemicals are released to protect the delicate apparatus of the ear, which can induce temporary deafness or the effect of everything happening in silence, further adding to the time distortion effect.
“I’m giving her all she’s got Captain” – Scotty – Star Trek
- As it is the large, powerful muscles that will be used to fight or flee, the body works hard to pump blood oxygen and glucose to the arm and leg muscles which raises your heart rate and blood pressure. Since the abdomen has now restricted the capacity of our lungs just when we need more oxygen, breathing quickens and hyperventilation can occur. Movement can feel jerky, twitchy and awkward as a result.
- The body starts to sweat even without any exertion in anticipation of the physical activity to come, in essence, pre-cooling the body. This results in a cold sweat or clammy hands.
Re-Allocating Physical & Mental Resources
“Divert more power to the ship’s shields” – Captain James T. Kirk – Star Trek (again!)
- To fulfill the need for muscular power, resources are diverted from areas and organ systems that are deemed temporarily unnecessary.
- The reproductive system is dialed down which in the modern world of heightened levels of stress, results in a loss of sexual appetite or an inability to conceive.
- The immune system is also diminished favouring responding to emergency injury rather than longer term repair and maintenance, making us susceptible to illness. Should the stress persist, we will likely catch every cold and flu virus that is doing the rounds.
- The digestive system, which is a tremendous drain on resources, is also dialed down. This frees up resources from digestion which can manifest itself as butterflies in the stomach, an urge to use the toilet, IBS, diarrhea, queasiness or vomiting. These reactions will help lighten the load and distract a predator.
- As the digestive system is not required, and neither are the enzymes in our saliva, our mouths start to dry.
- The bladder relaxes resulting in a need to pee! Again, this is a potential distraction for a predator and the unburdening of an unnecessary load.
- Blood is diverted away from the skin possibly to stem excessive bleeding in a fight. This can give us that ashen pallor associated with the stress response. Natural painkillers are also released into the body to create a numbing sensation.
Everything is Related
“I’m hugely confused, Ted!” – Father Dougal Maguire – Father Ted
- Since the brain is resource-intensive and we are currently relying on the more instinctive and impulsive parts, resources are diverted away from regions of the neo-cortex. This will create confusion and restrict access to long-term memories, which can result in irrational behaviour, poor decision making and inability to remember things during exams, for example.
- The small hairs on our body stand on end in a futile attempt to make us look bigger as our primitive brain forgets that we are no longer covered in hair.
- Finally, we also find it difficult to make eye contact while trying to appear submissive and less threatening to our adversary.
Your Body Is Now Ready to Fight or Flee
Each of these changes happen in the blink of an eye and without conscious awareness. Most people are therefore unaware of what happens to their body when they are subjected to stress. In the absence of this understanding, their neo-cortex attempts to fill in the blanks and come up with a possible explanation. More often than not these explanations are not only inaccurate but have the effect of elevating the already high-stress levels.
Furthermore, all those bodily changes are useless unless we are mentally motivated to take the necessary action required to either fight or run away. Emotion creates motion, and without it, all the priming of the body would be for nothing. Your brain will, therefore, create the correct emotional state required to act. This can either be fear, or sadness, or any emotion that makes you want to flee and get back to a place of safety and comfort. If necessary, it will create the aggressive feelings and anger required to fight your foe. This explains the emotional or aggressive reactions to stress and pressure in the modern world.
Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety symptoms can be either physical, psychological or both, and may include all or some of the following to varying degree….
- Irritability, impatience, restlessness and emotional tension
- Poor concentration, memory loss, fatigue, and lack of sleep
- Intrusive and unwanted thoughts, fears and phobias, and panic attacks
- A tendency to avoid or flee from anxious situations or environments
- Obsessive and/or compulsive behaviour and depression
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and paranoid behavior
- Difficulty breathing and heart palpitations
- Shortness of Breath
- Irritable bowel syndrome, tightness in the abdomen, digestion problems, and excessive urination
- Muscle tension, pain, twitching, trembling and numbness
Dealing with anxiety disorders requires us to understand how our bodies and minds react to stress and fear in the modern world. By recognising these signs and reactions, we are able to manage our response to panic situations and help those who face chronic anxiety.