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What is anxiety and why do I feel this way? Let's explore the biology, common and not so common symptoms...

Figuring out your anxiety and how it can be managed in a healthier way is one of the most frequently asked questions on Google and also in the therapy room, so without further ado, let's just get straight to it.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural response to stress or perceived threats, often characterised by feelings of apprehension, worry and nervousness. While occasional anxiety is a normal part of life, chronic or excessive anxiety can significantly impact your daily functioning and overall wellbeing.

The biology behind anxiety

At its core, anxiety involves complex interactions within the brain and body. The amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure in the brain, plays a central role in processing emotions, including fear and anxiety. When faced with a perceived threat, the amygdala triggers the body's "fight or flight" response, releasing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones prepare the body to react quickly to danger by increasing heart rate, dilating airways, and sharpening focus. In individuals who experience chronic anxiety, this response can become dysregulated, leading to prolonged feelings of anxiety even in non-threatening situations. Factors such as genetics, brain chemistry, traumatic experiences and environmental stressors can all contribute to the development of chronic anxiety. It may seem trivial but simply reminding yourself that anxiety is a natural response and thinking about what's going on in your nervous system and how that's affecting your physical sensations, may help to bring your thoughts away from the irrational worry and ground you in the moment.

Fight or flight response in the brain
Fight or Flight Anxiety Response

This diagram taken from Veronica Walsh's post on CBT, highlights what can happen when we are constantly exposed to stress and our brain function becomes dysregulated. It is suggested that the connection between the Hippocampus and Amygdala intensifies turning on the threat response whilst the connection between the Prefrontal Cortex and our Hippocampus weakens, meaning we are less able to rationalise our thoughts.

Common Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety can manifest in a multitude of symptoms, both physical and psychological. Some of the most common symptoms you're probably aware of include:

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Shortness of breath

  • Muscle tension

  • Sweating

  • Trembling or shaking

  • Upset stomach or gut issues

  • Excessive worrying

  • Irritability

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Restlessness

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Fatigue or tiredness

However, if you've ever experienced:

  • Heart palpitations - feeling as though your heart is pounding, fluttering or skipping a beat

  • Excessive yawning

  • Feeling as though you can't catch your breath

  • Jaw pain

  • Skin rashes / chronic itching

These can also be signs of anxiety caused by stress in the body, that can sometimes go unnoticed or unrecognised. It's important to note that anxiety symptoms can vary widely among individuals and may fluctuate in intensity over time.

Why do you feel anxious?

Anxiety can feel so debilitating and because we all cope with it in different ways, it can be very hard to understand what's 'normal'. Rather than comparing ourselves to others, it is more helpful to dig deeper into what's normal for you - how long have you felt the way you do currently? What impact is it having for you? What helps or hinders your anxiety? These are all questions we can consider when trying to identify triggers, so that we know how to better manage our symptoms. Common triggers may include:

  • Stressful Life Events: Major life changes such as moving, starting a new job, or experiencing loss can trigger feelings of anxiety

  • Traumatic Experiences: Past traumas or negative experiences can contribute to the development of anxiety disorders

  • Genetic Predisposition: Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to anxiety disorders, making them more susceptible to experiencing anxiety

  • Environmental Factors: Factors such as excessive noise, overcrowding, or financial pressures can exacerbate feelings of anxiety

It can be really uncomfortable to sit with some of these thoughts and feelings especially when we are so used to pushing away difficult emotions, so don't face this alone if you do not feel able. If you are struggling and would like to know whether counselling could help, feel free to get in touch with me and book a free consultation.

By understanding the biology, symptoms and triggers of our anxiety, we can take proactive steps to create healthier coping strategies and improve our overall wellbeing. Remember, you are not your anxiety, you are so much more.

**Polite reminder: I am not a medical professional, the information in my blog posts is purely from my own experiences, learnt knowledge and wider resources, if you are seriously worried about anything mentioned please get in touch with your GP.

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