This is an article I wrote for Redbrick newspaper a couple of weeks ago. I’m currently on holiday, so I’ve queued this post in advance. Apologies if you’ve read it already!
Whether it’s before an exam, during an interview, or in the middle of a crowded shopping centre, we’ve all felt the tell-tale signs of anxiety at one point or another. You can feel your heart pounding in your chest, your breathing becoming shallower and more rapid, butterflies in your stomach and sweat on your shaking palms. In the long-term, it can make you feel tired, irritable, cause loss of sleep and trouble concentrating, and even upset your digestion and immune function. So if anxiety’s all in the mind, why does our body start acting so… weird?
These physiological changes are all part of our body’s “fight or flight” response, an important evolutionary response, which aims to respond to dangerous or potentially threatening events, by preparing our body to either run away from danger, or confront it. Our bodies do this by releasing stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol increases blood glucose levels, providing our muscles with an energy source to keep us alert, energised and able to respond to threats. Other roles of the fight or flight response include increasing our heart rate and breathing rate, to increase blood flow and oxygen uptake, to our muscles, to prepare us for movement. In contrast, blood flow is diverted away from our digestive system, which is why some people feel nauseous or experience stomach aches when they’re feeling anxious. Adrenaline increases heart rate and blood pressure and enlarges pupils of the eyes. When the “fight or flight” response is activated, this can be exhausting for an individual, not only mentally, but physically, due to the range of physical responses which are activated, which can often lead stressed or anxious people to feeling incredibly tired, without understanding why. This is also why some chronically anxious people tend to lose weight: large amounts of energy are required to maintain this response. So anxiety and stress aren’t all in the mind after all. It isn’t just characterised by anxious thoughts and feelings. They cause a range of physical changes in our bodies which can lead to us feeling irritable, unwell and can lead to us avoiding situations which trigger this response.
Although this response seems to be more fitting to the threat of a wild animal, or an event requiring physical action, our fast-paced and high-pressure modern lifestyles and hectic schedules present different threats than those faced by our evolutionary ancestors, and our “fight or flight” response picks up on these, becoming activated far more often than you’d expect it to be. It can be triggered in different situations in different individuals, depending on how our brains interpret certain situations and potential danger, and anxiety can either be short-term, or chronic, in the form of an anxiety disorder. A YouGov survey from 2014 found that only 1 in 20 people claim to never feel anxious, and 4.7% of the population have anxiety problems, while 9.7% suffer mixed depression and anxiety, making anxiety the most common mental health problem in the UK.
While the reasons that some people are more anxious than others aren’t entirely clear, it seems to be attributable to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Anxiety disorders can run in families, though this does not mean that an individual with an anxiety disorder in their family will inherit the disorder. They can also be triggered by environmental cues, such as events early in life, including poor health, stressful events, difficult family relationships and a variety of other contributors. These different factors, both environmental and genetic, appear to work together, each contributing to the level of anxiety experienced by an individual, rather than acting individually. While anxiety and stress are often thought about as psychological events, often the most distressing and debilitating symptoms can be their physical effects, and considering the large proportion of people who are affected by anxiety at some point in their lives, it’s important for these to be acknowledged. Increasing knowledge of the biological basis of all the unusual feelings and reactions we have when we feel anxious can help us to realise that it’s not all in our heads after all.
If you are affected by anxiety or stress, and are looking for help dealing with this, the NHS website contains plenty of helpful resources and can provide access to further support.