Your hands are sweating, your heart is racing and your muscles feel weak–anxiety strikes again. Sure, it’s common to get nervous and restless every now and then. After all, work, family, the ups and downs of life and stressful events like public speaking or flying can stir up nerves. However, if anxiety lingers and interferes with the ability to enjoy everyday life, it has reached another level. So what does anxiety really mean? The word is often tossed around. Read on to find out.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a type of fear–a powerful emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes that has a strong effect on the mind and body because it is one of our natural survival responses. It is usually associated with the thought of a threat or something going wrong in the future, rather than something happening right now.[1,2]. In some cases, anxiety can actually be a useful emotion that helps people do things better.
What Does Anxiety do to the Body and Mind?
When you feel frightened or seriously anxious, the body and mind rev up for an emergency. Your body pumps adrenaline (one of the most common causes of anxiety) to your muscles, boosting them to respond powerfully, and your breathing and heart rate increase to pump more blood throughout your body. At the same time, the brain is doing its part by simultaneously activating the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the nerves and causes the body to become tense and very alert, and the adrenal-cortical system, which releases about 30 different hormones to prepare the body to handle the threat.[3,4] The hormones released into the body can cause the following physical reactions:
- Increase in heart rate and blood pressure
- Dilated pupils
- Constriction of veins in the skin, which causes the chilly sensation often associated with fear
- Increased blood glucose
- Tensing of muscles and goose bumps
- Relaxation of smooth muscles
- Shutting down of nonessential systems such as digestion and the immune system
- Difficulty concentrating on small tasks
Someone with anxiety may suffer from mental effects such as verbal worries and nervous thoughts, as well as physical effects like increased heart rate. It’s possible to experience mental effects more than physical, and vice versa. However, researchers have found that mental and physical effects excite different parts of the brain. Those with worried thoughts have shown more left brain activity when nervous and those with physical symptoms experienced more right brain activity.[3,4]
What Causes Anxiety?
While it’s not known exactly what causes anxiety, some researchers think that it may be caused by experiences through one’s life or because a person may have trouble creating chemicals in the body (called neurotransmitters) that control mood and send messages to the brain about how to feel, think and act.[3,5] Anxiety may also be linked to an underlying health issue such as the following:
- Heart disease
- Thyroid problems
- Drug abuse
- Alcohol withdrawal
- Withdrawal from anti-anxiety medications
- Rare tumors that produce certain “fight-or-flight” hormones
- Muscle cramps or spasms
- Tingling, burning or prickling sensations that may have no apparent cause
How do I know if I’m Anxious?
Anxiety can come in many forms. Some of the symptoms that might occur when someone is anxious include the following:[1,6]
- Excessive worry or obsessive thoughts
- Difficulty concentrating
- Avoidance of activities as a means of reducing distress
- Feeling frozen to the spot
- Difficulty relaxing
- Restlessness or feeling on edge
- Weak and fatigued muscles
- Trembling, feeling twitchy or being easily startled
- Fast and irregular heart beat
- Very fast breathing
- Sweating, nausea or diarrhea
- Stomach churns and bowels feel loose
- Difficulty eating
- Hot and cold sweats
- Dry mouth
In addition to the above, longer-term effects might also occur including the following:
- A more nagging sense of fear
- Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- Trouble getting on with work and planning for the future
- Problems having sex
- Loss of self-confidence
In extreme cases of anxiety and fear, a panic attack may occur. During panic attacks, a person may feel like he is dying, choking or “going crazy.”
What are the Types of Anxiety?
The following are anxiety disorders. Each disorder has different symptoms, but all the symptoms cluster around excessive, irrational fear and dread:
- Panic disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Social phobia (or social anxiety disorder)
- Specific phobias
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
How Can Anxiety Affect Me?
Having chronic anxiety can lead to depression, substance abuse, insomnia, digestive or bowel problems, headaches and teeth grinding. It can also have the following effects on the brain.
Stroke. When “fight or flight” hormones are constantly on the attack, your heart and stroke risk goes up.
Memory loss. When the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for stress) is working, some stress hormones stay active in the brain for too long, and can kill hippocampus brain cells, which are needed for memory and learning. Additionally, memory loss can be a side effect of taking selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are used to treat chronic anxiety disorders.
Cognitive performance and lack of concentration. Researchers have found that being preoccupied by anxiety can make it difficult to concentrate on anything else.
Loss of brain tissue and slowing of frontal-prefrontal lobe function. MRI scans of people with chronic anxiety have shown a slowing of prefrontal lobe function, which is responsible for cognitive analysis and abstract thought, and the moderation of socially accepted behavior. MRI scans also indicate that chronic anxiety sufferers may have a loss of brain tissue.
What are Treatments for Anxiety?
Treatment plans for anxiety may include group or individual psychotherapy, medication, psychoeducation, and relaxation tools and coping mechanisms to help a person learn how to control the anxiety.[4,6]
- Mental Health Foundation. Fear and Anxiety. Retrieved February 10, 2013, from http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/help-information/mental-health-a-z/F/fear-anxiety/.
- American Psychological Association. Anxiety. Retrieved February 10, 2013, from http://www.apa.org/topics/anxiety/index.aspx.
- Calm Clinic. Anxiety and the Brain: An Introduction. Retrieved February 11, 2013, from http://www.calmclinic.com/anxiety/anxiety-brain.
- Science Channel. What happens inside your body when you get scared? Retrieved February 12, 2013, from http://curiosity.discovery.com/question/what-happens-when-scared.
- Medical Billing & Coding. 10 Negative Effects of Anxiety on the Brain. Retrieved , February 13, 2013, from http://www.medicalbillingandcoding.org/blog/10-negative-effects-of-anxiety-on-your-brain/.
- University of Illinois at Chicago. What is Anxiety? [PDF] Retrieved February 10, 2013, from http://www.uic.edu/depts/counseling/docs/Anxiety.pdf.
- Mayo Clinic. Anxiety Complications. Retrieved February 13, 2013, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/anxiety/DS01187/DSECTION=complications.
- Office of Population Affairs. Maturation of the Prefrontal Cortex. Retrieved February 13, 2013, from http://www.hhs.gov/opa/familylife/tech_assistance/etraining/adolescent_brain/Development/prefrontal_cortex/.
- National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety Disorders. Retrieved February 10, 2013, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/anxiety-disorders/introduction.shtml.
By C. J. Newton, MA, Therapists.com Editor