When people talk about anxiety, they often lump together the experiences of their anxiety, such as tension in the chest, increased heart rate, difficulty breathing. Learning to over-come anxiety requires that we understand why we struggle with it and what it looks like for us, for each individual. There are commonalities with anxiety, but not everyone has the same physical response.
Common Anxiety Symptoms:
- Increased heart rate
- perspiration or sweating
- narrowing field of vision (tunnel vision)
- muscle tension
- sensitive hearing
- racing thoughts
- shortness of breath
- goose bumps
- dry mouth
Why do we have a strong physical response to a mental problem?
Parasympathetic Nervous System
This is the Flight or Fight Response to stimuli. In a calm state of mind, you parasympathetic system maintains a healthy heart rate, produces saliva for digestion, contracts the bladder, controls appropriate levels of oxygen in the lungs – essentially, it keeps everything running smoothly. This system is activated by your happy hormones (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin & endorphin) and the stress hormone cortisol.
Healthy levels of your happy hormones help to maintain a well functioning Parasympathetic Nervous System. Our bodies produce these hormones with laughter, smiling, connecting with nature, spending time with loved ones or physical activity.
Cortisol is produced when our minds perceive danger. This threat can be real (actual threat of harm) or perceived (imagined), the brain does not know the difference.
Cortisol is the body’s fuel for survival. When Fight or Flight response is activated it has several physiological changes in the body:
- Heart rate increase giving you the ability to run
- Your digestive system temporarily shuts down to reserve energy to run or fight
- Your pupils dilate to improve your vision
- You hearing improves
All of this allows you to effectively respond to danger and survive.
Trauma & Anxiety
When we experience any kind of trauma, we release high levels of cortisol. When the trauma lasts for an extended period of time (eg: abusive relationships), we continue to produce excessive cortisol. It becomes a habit that our bodies produce cortisol and as any habit, this one is hard to break.
Continued production of excessive cortisol is the perfect garden plot for all sorts of physiological issues such as those listed in the picture above.
- Decreased Metabolism – the digestive system is not functioning at full capacity, therefore weight gain or weight loss is possible.
- Acid Reflux – again, due to the improper functioning of the digestive system, acid reflux becomes an issue
- Hunger – We can’t eat when we are stressed and usually choose quick, processed foods to quench the cravings.
- Chronic Fatigue – Elevated heart rate, improper digestion & muscle tension are all very exhausting. The increased heart rate also prevents proper sleep patterns.
- Migraines – The heart is working overtime and pumping blood faster than is needed. This will cause pressure in the head or migraines, coupled with improper nutrition & sleep deprivation.
- Increased Heart Rate – Because the heart is not functioning normally, hypertension or high blood pressure is possible. This is usually followed by an increase in inflammation within the body (arthritis or other inflammatory issues).
How do we change the body’s response?
In order to decrease our production of stress hormones (cortisol), we must increase the production of happy hormones.
- Be aware of your breath – slow it down
- Go outside, find a green space & truly appreciate nature
- Connect with friends or family
- Watch a funny movie or video
- Practice Gratitude
- Turn up the volume & sing at the top of your lungs
- Eat good healthy food
- Have a nap
- Go for a walk
- Share your experiences & find support
- Make HAPPY part of your daily routine!
- Your brain does not know if the threat is real or perceived.
- You can rewire your brain to produce less cortisol by increasing the happy hormones.
- You have the power to reduce your anxiety symptoms.
- Some of your other physical health issues may be a direct result of your past trauma. If you are speaking to your doctor, be sure they have ALL the information, not just a laundry list of symptoms.
- Increasing production of happy hormones should improve your over-all health & well-being.