It’s been demonstrated through a substantial body of evidence that emotions have a physiological link. Afterall, emotions are also known as ‘feelings’ and this is because we physically ‘feel’ them in our body. Our brain has a very effective way of communicating with our body (and vice versa) and through doing this, it has the role of regulating our body’s hormonal and emotional responses to the environment around us.
We know from the evidence that stress and anxiety cause an increase in the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Too much or too little of these hormones in our blood stream may cause a number of complex physiological responses. In the immediate present, a quick injection of these stress hormones can be helpful if we are in a situation that we perceive to be dangerous or challenging as they enable us to immediately increase our awareness of danger and prepare our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ survival response. These hormones do this by raising our blood sugar, increasing our heart rate, and directing our blood to parts of the body that may be needed, such as the heart and muscles, so we can respond and survive quickly. However, in the longer term, this physiological state can suppress our immune system and result in a number of anxiety symptoms and physically detrimental problems including…
- Heartburn: It is thought that when the body becomes anxious, it begins to produce more stomach acid which is then more likely to travel up your oesophagus and cause acid reflux and heartburn. It is also possible that anxiety may cause lasting muscle tension, including the muscles around the stomach, which is likely to affect the regulation of acid within the stomach. This can become a vicious cycle because having heartburn can also increase anxiety symptoms, in some heartburn can be so painful that it can cause the thought, “I’m having a heart attack”!
- Headaches / head fogs: It’s likely if you’ve ever had to perform in front of a room full of people in the course of your job or other life experience, that you felt anxious before you did it. It’s also likely that you experienced an immediate headache once you’d finished. This is because the cortisol and adrenaline hormones that flood your body create muscle tension, including tension of the muscles in our head.
- Reduced appetite: When you’re anxious, your body is prepared to escape the enemy and ready to invest all its energy in a survival response. It is very likely that this state of hypervigilance is going to reduce the energy invested in other functions (such as digestion and hunger) so that it has more to invest in survival. This is one reason why hunger may not be a primary concern when you’re in a state of high anxiety. The muscle tension caused by anxiety also plays a part in reducing your appetite. This isn’t to say that all people eat less when they’re anxious. Sometimes our automatic coping strategies (often the unhelpful ones!) can kick in and it may be that, despite not feeling hungry, you seek out high sugar and fat comfort food to binge on to make yourself feel better even if our body doesn’t indicate a need for it. These foods will also give you a quick release of energy which may be needed when feeling anxious for a long period of time.
- Memory loss: Similarly to the rest of our body, our brain has an excellent capacity to select what functions it serves when we are faced with anxiety. Preparing for a survival response will mean shutting down or ‘diverting’ energy to other parts of the brain to enable the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response if required. This is why people who have experienced very traumatic experiences may feel as if they have forgotten large parts of the event. The memory is still likely to be stored somewhere in their brain, but at the time of the event, the normal functions of the brain involved in processing and memory storage had been diverted into the survival response.It is also likely that people who experience long lasting, high levels of anxiety are in stressful positions in their lives and have multiple demands on their time at any point. This may make it very difficult for them to focus on any one thing in the moment with mindfulness and retain such large amounts of information. Inevitably they will struggle to remember everything presented to them.
- Exhaustion: It is no wonder that if our bodies are firing on all cylinders, ready to invest all energy stores into responding to a threat, there will be very little left in the store after the day (or moment) is over.
- Sleep loss and insomnia: Have you ever laid in bed at night ready for sleep and found that you can’t stop thinking about something you’re worried about? After a while perhaps your mind became more alive with repetitive worry thoughts and the possibility of sleep evaporated along with any feeling of sleepiness? Three hours later, perhaps you’ve become consumed with anxiety and worry about how you’ll survive the following day without any sleep? Maybe everything that ever caused you to feel anxious, sad and ashamed has popped back up into your mind?Anxiety has a generalising effect. One anxious thought can lead to many anxious thoughts that can lead to the triggering of all the memories of experiences that ever caused you anxiety and stress! At night, when you’re most tired and your defences are down in preparation for sleep, you can be most at risk of your brain having all sorts of unhelpful thoughts. The more tired you become, the less able to regulate your own thoughts and emotions you are likely to be, thus becoming more at risk to suffering from anxiety symptoms.
Brief periods of anxiety tend to be normal and healthy responses to life events. It is only when anxiety sticks around and begins to contribute to the development of unhelpful behaviours and intense emotions that chronically disrupt your life that you should become concerned. Some of these may include:
- Feelings of disconnection, being in a bubble or feeling things are ‘unreal’;
- Numbness and absence of feeling normal emotional fluctuations;
- Habits, rituals and ‘ticks’ such as grinding teeth, nail biting or other physical rituals, that become compulsive;
- Paranoid and repetitive thoughts;
- Chronic catastrophic thoughts accompanied by a feeling of dread as if something terrible is going to happen;
- Checking things more often such as door locks, social media, whether someone has texted you back;
- Significant dips in mood, feeling unmotivated, despairing and hopeless;
- Thoughts that life is too hard to continue with, your emotions are too painful and you desperately need it all to just stop.
If any of the experiences, and anxiety symptoms mentioned in this blog are troubling you, we welcome you to get in touch with our friendly team today. We can help you schedule a consultation with someone who can offer support, encouragement and guidance about well evidenced skills and techniques you can use to help you reduce these difficulties and anxiety symptoms.
Authored by: Dr Lauren Sayers, Lead Clinical Psychologist