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Anxiety is a feeling of fear, worry, and unease that causes physical changes in the human body, which impact the central nervous system. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issue in the United States, with 40 million adults experiencing an anxiety disorder each year. 

Signs and symptoms of anxiety

Anxiety can cause chronic stress and comes from many diverse sources, such as work stress or traumatic life events. Anxiety often leads to physical symptoms such as headaches, tightness in the upper chest, high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, muscle tension and sleep problems. Therefore, it is important to recognise and decrease anxiety to avoid these, often debilitating, symptoms.

Anxiety causes your brain to be hyperactive

Anxiety is a stress response that triggers your brain to be on high alert and become hyperactive in response to potential dangers. When your brain and nervous system experience anxiety on a regular basis, your amygdala grows larger. The amygdala is a tiny almond-shaped structure located in the limbic system, the part of your brain that manages emotions and moods. The amygdala is the brain’s lookout, always on the lookout for threats. When the amygdala detects a potential hazard, it sends signals to the hypothalamus, which activates a fight-or-flight response. In an anxious mind, this triggers a person to have anxious thoughts and ‘feel anxious.’

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
GAD is characterised by excessive anxiety for no discernible reason. GAD, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), affects approximately 6.8 million Americans each year. When you have a moderate case, you should be able to go about your regular daily routines without difficulty. Severe cases of GAD will have a significant impact on a person’s life.

Social anxiety disorder
Social anxiety disorder is an intense, chronic dread of social situations and being judged or humiliated by others. This severe social phobia makes one feel embarrassed and alone. According to the ADAA, 15 million US adults suffer from a social anxiety disorder. The typical age of onset is around 13 years old. More than a third of persons with a social anxiety disorder have experienced their symptoms for over 10 years.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
After witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event, a person can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms might appear immediately or take years to appear. War, natural catastrophes, and physical assaults are some of the most common causes. PTSD episodes can be triggered without notice.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder
A person with OCD may feel a strong urge to repeat particular behaviours (compulsions) excessively or have intrusive and unwanted thoughts or obsessions that cause distress. Common compulsions include excessive hand-washing, counting and checking something, fear of contamination, hostile urges, and a need for symmetry.

Phobias
Some examples of phobias include a fear of the dark, skin irritation from bright light, fear of being alone, fear of heights, fear of flying, fear of spiders or snakes and fear of needles is another example. A person with a phobia will have a strong urge to avoid the feared thing or situation or feel an intense feeling of discomfort when confronted with it.

Panic disorder
A person with a panic disorder may experience a panic attack, which is an extreme stress response that causes a sense of impending doom such as a fear of dying or loss of control, especially if it is linked to a specific event or situation. The physical symptoms associated with panic disorder can include heart palpitations and chest tightness, sweating or chills, shortness of breath and trembling.

These episodes can strike at any moment. Panic disorder is sometimes accompanied by another type of anxiety disorder called agoraphobia, which is an extreme or irrational fear of leaving one’s home, entering open or crowded places or being somewhere that is difficult to escape from. 

Sympathetic nervous system and autonomic nervous system

The significant players in anxiety disorders include norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid in the central nervous system. The autonomic nervous system indirectly controls the sympathetic nervous system for autonomic failure.
As stated above, anxiety is a feeling of fear, worry, and unease. However, anxiety can be helpful for some people who experience these feelings as a response to an impending challenge, such as before taking a test or exam, going to a job interview or on a first date.
Anxiety can also signal that something dangerous might happen and encourage the person to take precautions, such prepare for extreme weather events or ensuring safety. Anxiety becomes problematic when it lasts too long, is too intense, or includes physical symptoms besides fear.

The effects of anxiety on the body’s immune system

Anxiety can stimulate your flight-or-fight response, which releases a surge of chemicals and hormones, such as adrenaline, into your system. This raises your heart rate and breathing rate in the short term so that your brain can get more oxygen and prepares you for a critical situation.
Your immune system may even be temporarily strengthened as a result of stress. However, if you are constantly anxious and stressed, your body never receives the message to return to normal functioning. This can impair your immunological system, making you more susceptible to viral infections and acute illnesses. Furthermore, if you have anxiety, your usual vaccines may not be as effective.

Central nervous system anxiety

Anxiety results from an imbalance between the sympathetic nervous system (which is responsible for mobilising the body in response to stress or threat) and the parasympathetic nervous system (which is responsible for calming the body). Some of the major ways in which anxiety can affect your physical health are through its effects on digestion, the immune system, the heart, hormone levels and blood pressure (Yaribeygi, Panahi, Sahraei, Johnston & Sahebkar, 2017).
Symptom severity changes when stress levels become excessive and anxiety levels increase, it may help you cope less efficiently. Panic attacks show signs of intense anxiety. Brain maps display high beta brain waves on the right brain lobe. Anxiety causes overwhelming hyperactivity, and it is harder to reason.

Ways to calm your central nervous system anxiety

Research shows there are many ways to calm your central nervous system and elicit a relaxation response to improve your mental well being and control your anxiety. These include stress management techniques you can incorporate into your daily life and include:

 

  1. Acknowledging your anxious thoughts is a powerful first step to calming yourself because it enables you to take action in one or more of the following ways.
  2. Relaxation techniques enable you to slow down your body and brain by focusing on deep breathing exercises or meditation. It can also include creative visualisation or hypnosis.
  3. Psychotherapy, which includes cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), helps you identify negative thoughts associated with your anxiety and replace them with positive thoughts.
  4. Yoga, which helps you meditate while focusing solely on taking regular breaths. Yoga is a technique that has proven successful in reducing stress levels for those suffering from anxiety.
  5. Regular physical exercise takes you out of your head and into your body, increasing self-confidence, improving mood, inducing a relaxation response, and improving sleep.
  6. Mindfulness, which is a therapeutic technique whereby a calm mental state is achieved by focusing your awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations and helping you to feel peaceful.
  7. Herbal remedies can help to calm a person suffering from anxiety. These include: ashwagandha root extract, chamomile flower extract, valerian, lavender, galphimia glauca, passionflower.
  8. A GP or psychiatrist can provide medical advice on chemical treatments for anxiety, which include medications focused on serotonin production like serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors.
  9. Photobiomodulation laser therapy involves shining infrared and near-infrared light onto targeted areas of the body, which then helps to stimulate, protect, repair and energise the body at a cellular level.
  10. Eye movement desensitisation reprocessing (EMDR), which involves the rapid movement of a client’s eyes, taxing their working memory and enabling them to reprogram their brain. This in turn alleviates and even extinguishes the continuing effects of painful thoughts and memories. As well as visual bilateral stimulation, EMDR can also use tactile and auditory stimulation. This therapeutic modality can be beneficial to clients who struggle to talk about their suffering. 

 

Anxiety is a normal human emotion

The good news is that it’s important to remember that anxiety is a normal human emotion that we all experience from time to time and in one form or another. External and internal factors can cause anxiety but, moving forward, it is important to remember that anxiety is not always bad for your health. Anxiety is often an indicator of something more serious like life-threatening illnesses such as heart disease or cancer, so do not dismiss the feelings you are having if they persist over time.

Author

​Shannon Bowman is the Director of SJB Clinical Consulting Pty Ltd,
and Create Balance Psychotherapy & Counselling.
​Create Balance Laser Therapy VIEW HERE
Shannon has a clinical interest in treating trauma, PTSD and ADHD.
He is accredited as an Mental Health Social Worker AMHSW,
psychotherapist and registered EMDR practitioner. Associations below.
Australian Association of Social Workers
EMDR Association of Australia