What Happens When You're Anxious

Anxiety, what happens when it occurs and how to help yourself manage it.

More and more people seem to be experiencing anxiety, however, recent research in Cambridge, England and Gottingen, Germany indicates that the levels haven’t increased much in the last 20 – 30 years. Perhaps it’s being talked and written about more.

There is some evidence that anxiety disorders, which are different from occasional anxiety, are higher in 18 – 34 year olds. Anxiety can take many forms, from general anxiety disorder, social anxiety, anxiety about anxiety, to specific phobias, like fear of flying.

However, what happens when you experience this thing called ‘anxiety’?

The physiological response

  • Your heart beats faster
  • Your hands shake or get sweaty
  • You can’t think straight

You get stomach cramps, may need to go to the toilet, may feel or be sick.

Your digestion slows and it heightens your sensitivity to pain.

These are just some of the physical changes that happen as a result of your fight or flight response kicking in.

The amygdala, your ‘alarm’ system in the brain, has triggered the release of adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones to get you to run away or fight. This is a perfectly normal response to being or feeling unsafe and in some form of danger. The good news is that your body is responding properly.

We developed our fight and flight response as we evolved over the millennia to keep us alive. Unfortunately, that stress response may be to something that, in reality, isn’t really going to kill you. It might be something linked to an early learned response or a thought about something.

What part does inheritance play?

Your genes can make you more prone to anxiety and, given the ‘right’ stimulus, e.g. a stressful environment during childhood or a traumatic event, might increase the likelihood of you becoming more anxious but not necessarily. There may be other influences at work. The different levels of hormones for women around their monthly cycle and during pregnancy may make some more susceptible to anxiety too.

Nurture also plays its part. Anxiety can be learned from those around you and, as mentioned earlier, if you have experienced a trauma or some form of disturbing event this can lead to long-term anxiety developing.

How you think about things may also be a mix of nature and nurture. Many clients I work with, who have anxiety, have a specific way of thinking about things. They ‘what if’ about the future. They focus on what could go wrong and about their inability to cope if it did go wrong.

This type of thinking, often called catastrophic thinking, can be changed. You can learn how to think differently. People can also develop catastrophic thinking about the physical feelings described above.

The brain and anxiety

I’ve already mentioned the amygdala, which is our ‘alarm’ trigger system. The other thing to realise about the brain is that it is designed to save energy. That means when it learns a pattern of behaviour it tends to trigger that response in any, vaguely, similar setting because it saves energy.

That’s fine when driving a car or walking or running but the same happens when we experience a response to an anxiety-provoking thought or event.

If over time, you’ve learned to respond in a certain way to feeling stressed or anxious, the pathways in your brain will start to be triggered before you are consciously aware of the thought or the external stimulus. It will seem as though the physical response came first.

This is because there is a delay in the brain between a response starting to fire off and the conscious recognition of it happening. Many times it may not even reach your consciousness. You’ll just be aware of your heart beating faster, sweaty palms, etc. and wonder why you are feeling this way when there is nothing obvious triggering it.

What can you do?

There are various therapies that can help people manage and cope with anxiety and even get rid of it. Some people may need medication, but many will be able to change things without it.

CBT, hypnosis, Brainworking Recursive Therapy (BWRT ®), mindfulness and many others can help. They all focus, in one way or another, on changing how you respond to the situations you find anxiety-provoking, whether that’s to the thoughts about the physical symptoms of anxiety or to past memories or worrying about future events.

I use a combination of techniques including, hypnotherapy, cbt combined with hypnosis, EMDR, NLP, or, a newer therapy, BWRT®. Whatever you decide do seek help, even if it’s just talking to a friend.

Ways to help yourself

Deep breathing can help – some recommend the 7/11 breath. Breathing in for the count of 7 and out for the count of 11. If that seems too much at first start with 3/7 and build up. You can also breathe in a 4 count breath cycle, 4 in, hold for 4, out for 4, hold for 4.

Following online courses such as ‘HeadSpace’ or joining ‘CalmClan’ can also provide support. There are also courses that your GP can refer you to. In some health authority areas in the UK, you can also get self-help books on prescription from your library, ask your GP.

You can label your anxiety and when you start to experience it just say to yourself ‘Oh there’s old anxiety again wonder what he/she’s on about now?’ I know it might seem weird but it can help.

Write down the things you are worried about and take a step back and consider what you would actually do if the thing you are worried about happened. Write down your solutions. If you can’t think of any imagine a friend had asked you for help with a similar problem what would you advise them to do.

Take some exercise, if you can, even if it’s just in the house, running on the spot, or find some yoga videos to follow and practice. Swimming, particularly cold water swimming seems to help but take some expert advice. Recent research from Iowa University has shown that just taking a walk, even if it’s on a treadmill, can improve mood too.

Change your diet. Some recent research, led by Phil Burnet at University of Oxford, found that eating ‘a fibre-rich supplement’ for three weeks helped people pay more attention to positive words during a test. The supplement promoted the growth of beneficial bacteria in their gut. They also found that in the morning the volunteers had lower levels of cortisol in their blood. There may be other foods that can also help.

Research has also shown that taking probiotics can, for some, improve mood.

If you want to explore other ways to help yourself then you could try my Be A Stress Survivor audio course and there are some breathing exercises on my YouTube Channel.

Anxiety is manageable and in many instances, you can stop being anxious. Worry is a natural and normal part of life and learning the difference between the two is important. Sometimes we can’t change a situation, none-the-less we can learn to accept it and find a way of coping.

Categories: Stress, Anxiety