What Actually Happens In Our Body When We Feel Anxiety?


Fear and anxiety have similar responses, but there are a few key differences. They result in similar physiological and behavioural responses, and both

Fear and anxiety have similar responses, but there are a few key differences. They result in similar physiological and behavioural responses, and both have the role of helping us deal with danger, however the key difference between fear and anxiety is that fear is a result of physical peril; anxiety is the result of worry. Research over the past few decades has given us a clearer picture of what happens in our brains as a result of both feelings of fear and worry.

Research has concluded that there are two separate pathways in the brain that can create anxiety:

1. Originates in the Cerebral cortex, which generates thoughts and perceptions towards situations

2. Originates in the Amygdala, which triggers the fight-or-flight response and attaches associations to emotional feelings towards objects, memories and situations

Typical approaches to treating anxiety have focused on the responses from the cerebral cortex and the consideration that thoughts originating from the cortex may play a part in increasing or decreasing anxiety. Therefore with appropriate levels of self-awareness and intervention we may be able to change our thought processes and prevent them from triggering anxiety. Taking the amygdala into account we know that it has the role of attaching emotional feelings towards objects and situations, which forms both positive and negative emotional memories. Fears can be categorised as either rational (caused by a specific event or life experience) or irrational (naturally occurring or generally unlikely to cause harm).

The Anxiety Response

Whether a fear or anxiety you have is categorised as irrational or rational we know that the response to this trigger is the fight-or-flight response. This triggers the sympathetic nervous system to release hormones such as cortisol or adrenaline into the bloodstream.

This streaming adrenaline and cortisol activates physical changes such as:

● Increased heart rate

● Increased respiration rate

● Muscle tension

● Pupils dilate

● Blood pumped into extremities, which can give the sensation of pins and needles or numbness

Physiological changes include:

● Trembling

● Heart palpitations

● In some cases pain and elimination

All of these responses focus on giving the body every chance it has to survive this immediate danger it has registered. This is often how a panic attack feels – most people describe it as feeling they are going to die and others have mistaken this response as cardiac arrest! In anxiety disorders these responses are often attached to objects, smells, memories that are not currently a threat, but have previously created a pathway in the amygdala to trigger the adrenal response. This is where the term ‘trigger’ comes from. In an individual with trauma or stress these associations with negative impact sit in the amygdala and can be ‘triggered’ without evident cause.

**Now the part that we all wish we could master: how do we break these associations that ‘trigger’ an unnecessary adrenal response and anxiety? **

Well because the amygdala has developed these associations from negative experiences, the key to breaking these associations could be replacing these negative experiences with positive ones. So the term ‘face your fears’ may have some logic behind it!

In terms of reprogramming the Cerebral Cortex we know that it processes sensory information such as sights and sounds and it can sometimes register safe situations as risks sending impulses to the amygdala to initiate that anxiety response. So the cortex misinterpreting the sensory information has caused you unnecessary anxiety. To break this cycle you need to consider what is causing it, images, thoughts, or certain stimulations? If you can identify the route of these ‘triggers’ you may be able to rationalise and comfort yourself back into the reality that you are in fact in no immediate danger.

Disclaimer: this article is not intended be used as a treatment for anxiety or anxiety disorders. It is intended as a tool to help users understand the adrenal response. Seek professional help if you feel you have an anxiety disorder.

If you are experiencing difficulties with your mental health, please seek advice from a medical professional or the Samaritans helpline at 116 123.