Anxiety as an emotion has a valuable function in our lives. We need anxiety to function properly and keep us moving forward. When anxiety is right sized for the situation, it helps or urges us to take appropriate action. We put more effort into our preparation for a test or a presentation; we look for a solution to a problem; we lean into the thing that we are a little fearful of or avoiding.
When we talk about anxiety, we usually talk about it as the worries, fears, and other negative thoughts that occur in our “thinking brain” aka our prefrontal cortex. However, anxiety also comes with physical symptoms (shaking, rapid heartbeat, sweaty hands, etc.) that we may not understand as part of the overall experience of anxiety.
If we don’t understand why these physical symptoms are occurring, or they seemingly occur “out of the blue”, we may misinterpret or catastrophize them as signals that something is very wrong with us and thereby unwittingly increase our anxiety.
Sometimes, understanding why you have physical symptoms of anxiety can be helpful for controlling it because the more you understand why you feel the way you do, the more you’ll be able to keep yourself grounded and be mindful of how you feel.
Why Do We Have Physical Symptoms?
Many tens of thousands of years ago, early man was faced with many dangers, with all sorts of animals and other humans potentially posing a threat to our health and safety. Our brains evolved to help us stay safe from those dangers by creating what’s known as the “fight, flight or freeze system,” part of our autonomic nervous system. This system immediately prepares our body if we come face to face with danger. This system is designed to kick in quickly and automatically, without conscious or thoughtful effort on our part. It is largely due to the activity and “judgment” of the part of our brain called the amygdala.
The amygdala’s only job is to keep us alive. When we are dealing with excess anxiety, we can think of our amygdala as being overprotective. It takes its role very seriously and would rather send out false danger signals than miss something important. However, all those false signals take a toll on our physical and emotional health. Unfortunately, the amygdala doesn’t take into consideration the “side effects” of all those false warning signals.
Even now, if we were to be face to face with an angry lion, our bodies would react immediately and prepare us to fight, flee or freeze (play dead) by setting into motion a variety of chemical reactions that allow us to run faster, punch harder, react quicker, and hopefully make it easier to protect ourselves from harm. Your brain triggers a cascading chain of neurochemical events that lead to physical “symptoms” such as:
- Faster Heartbeat
- Muscle Tension
- Breathing Fast
- Trouble Concentrating
When we’re faced with danger, these “symptoms” actually help keep us safe. When our heart beats faster we can run faster. When the blood moves to our muscles (causing lightheadedness) we can push our muscles harder. When we sweat, we cool down as we fight or flee.
However, when the amygdala sends out a false danger alarm, the fight, flight, or freeze system is activated and the physical changes that would be helpful if real danger was present are left with no way to immediately “turn off”. Not only does that mean that these physical symptoms become upsetting instead of helpful – it also means that we experience them in a different way. Because we didn’t fight, our heartbeat feels like it’s pounding out of its chest. Because we didn’t run, the sweating just makes us feel sticky and cold since there’s nothing to cool.
Instead of helping keep us safe, it causes us to not feel very well at all, and it also may last longer since your body isn’t using up the energy through fighting/fleeing. Hence these “unused” physical changes or “symptoms” of anxiety can be so disruptive, and a big reason why anxiety causes so many problems with our ability to enjoy our lives.
Anxiety Treatment in Kansas, Missouri, and Arizona
Dr. Randa of Friendly Psychology is a licensed clinical psychologist from Kansas City that can treat anxiety using evidence-based treatments, in an environment that is comfortable for you. With remote therapy, Dr. Randa can provide treatment in KS, MO, and AZ, and is available to help you work through your anxiety symptoms. Call today to learn more.