What Physically Happens To You When You’re Anxious?

People go about their lives feeling anxious and not knowing what they’re experiencing. That might be due to cultural reasons, lack of access to mental health information, or being consistently told by others that “it’s all in your head.” Well, it’s actually not. And here’s why. Our brains are wired for survival, so throughout the day our brains consistently take in visual and sensory information from our environment. When our brain perceives a threat or danger to our life, immediate changes happen in our body that are designed to help us survive. Here’s what actually goes on when you’re anxious:

Is it danger, or is it not? When our brain sees danger, it sends signals to different parts of our body to prepare us to take action. This is called the fight, flight, or freeze response or stress response. While facing danger, your brain decides whether you need to run, fight, or stand still in order to survive. Luckily we don’t have to do all the work to figure that out, it’s a natural and normal process of being human. The downside to our brain’s wiring for survival, is that it often can’t differentiate between real or imagined danger. Say you’re camping in the woods and a bear decides to invade your campsite. Your body will immediately shift to your flight, fight, or freeze response to help you survive. But say you’re at work one day and get feedback about a recent presentation you did. Then you start feeling hot, your heart races, and suddenly it’s harder to breathe. Your brain is seeing a bear right in front of you, not a manager giving you constructive feedback.

Physical changes you might notice. When our body shifts into our stress response, there are several changes that take place. Our pupils dilate so we can take in more of our environment. Blood flow increases to our muscles in case we need to run. Our digestion slows down and we either have the urge to use the bathroom, or we do the moment the stress response shift happens. Our mouth dries up, our muscles feel tense, and our breathing becomes rapid and shallow. All this occurs after important stress hormones are released into our body. Once this happens, those hormones can take up to a few days to metabolize, leaving us feeling fatigued. Each time you shift into your stress response, a whole new flood of stress hormones are released in your body. This can lead to lifelong medical and mental health issues, which is a whole other story.

There are many reasons why we develop anxiety throughout our life and it takes curiosity and patience to figure out when that happened for us. It’s important to remember that anxiety is a normal emotion to feel, but if it’s preventing you from living your life, it may be time to look into making changes. Teaching your brain and body to stop responding to imagined danger is possible and takes consistent efforts to do. Sometimes this is difficult to learn on your own. Having a teammate and safe space to work through these things can have a positive outcome. We’re always welcome to schedule a free phone consultation to see if it’s a good fit for you.