Anxiety: what it is, what it does to the body and how to treat it

The first feeling that is linked to anxiety is fear. And for good reason: they are upcoming emotions. Fear is part of the human brain’s response to a direct threat, and it disappears when the risk factor no longer exists. “Anxiety causes a similar response, only instead of responding to something directly in front of us, our brain reacts to a hypothetical situation, even when the probability of it happening is low,” defined Jordan Davidson in a special issue of the magazine Health about the topic.

“If anxiety didn’t exist, people would probably have a hard time anticipating and avoiding danger,” he added. And for that he has fulfilled a important role in evolution.

“Imagine a prehistoric human on the African savannah, seeing a tan-colored shape in the distance,” psychologist Ronald Sieguel, a professor at Harvard Medical School, proposed to Davidson. “The brain can make one of two mistakes: assuming the shape is a lion when it is just a rock, or assuming it is a rock when it is actually a lion. You can make the first mistake thousands of times and live, but if the second is committed just once, it is the end of the DNA line”.

Man leaning with hands against wall, dark room
Man leaning with hands against wall, dark room (Katarzyna Bialasiewicz/)

The problem starts when the anxiety does not have a role of response to a potential danger, but is constantsevere and independent of the world, anchored inside the mind of a person. Distress, panic attacks, depression, and a myriad of physical symptoms, from gastrointestinal disorders to chronic pain, through sexual dysfunction and insomnia, are the result. Chronic anxiety interferes with a person’s normal life.

Before the pandemic, Davidson noted, anxiety disorders affected approximately 7% of the world’s population. But since the advent of COVID-19 rates increased a lot: anxiety reaches 27% of the general population, 40% of people who contracted the coronavirus and 43% of health workers.

This proves that the environment is an anxiety factor. So are the Family history (having a father or mother with anxiety multiplies by two and up to four the chances of developing a condition linked to anxiety), sex (those people assigned female at birth are more likely to suffer from it) and age. The stress —”the interpretation or perception of something as dangerous or problematic”, he defined Health Michelle Newman, a senior research fellow at Penn State University—and the concern —”the anticipation of a threat”, he completed— aggravate anxiety, which is a response to both.

Physical symptoms of anxiety

First are the hormones: the body prepares to face danger or escape by raising the levels of cortisol, adrenaline and others, Noelle LeBlanc explained in the special issue. “In small doses and when needed, these hormones offer us the best chance of survival, but when we produce them for a long time they can present problems in the cardiovascular, digestive, immune, respiratory, or nervous systems”, he warned.

The hyperventilation It is one of the easiest physical symptoms of anxiety to notice: it consists of a short, agitated breath, which causes the lungs to absorb more oxygen for fight or flight. “However, this can make a person feel like they’re not getting enough oxygen, which can lead to more anxiety,” LeBlanc illustrated. “The changes in breathing that anxiety causes may even contribute to asthma symptoms.”

The heart rate speeds up due to anxiety: the heart begins to pump faster because the body sends blood and oxygen to the muscles, which have tightened to withstand stress and avoid injury. That acceleration “can cause palpitations and chest pain, and can increase the danger of high blood pressure and coronary heart disease”, he explained Health.

What blood rushes to the heart and extremities, the parts of the body needed to meet the threat or flee, the rapidity of the flow can cause a person to feel dizzy or have a numb feeling. The release of the hormones can cause shaking or shaking.

Cortisol and adrenaline also make the liver produces more glucose to improve energy, which raises blood glucose values. “In the short term, the body reabsorbs excess sugar, but when blood glucose remains high for a period, increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in predisposed individuals,” LeBlanc observed.

The response to anxiety blocks digestion and relaxes the stomach muscles, which can cause nausea, diarrhea, and pain; when the response is repeated, you may lose your appetite and increases the risk of ulcers. People with anxiety are more likely to suffer digestive diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome.

Can anxiety be treated?

Most patients with this disorder also suffer from agoraphobia or fear of open spaces (Shutterstock)
Most patients with this disorder also suffer from agoraphobia or fear of open spaces (Shutterstock)

Anxiety is a treatable disorder, stressed physician Michael MacIntyre.

The psychologist Siegel specified that there are two families of drugs that help people with anxiety disorders. The first are the benzodiazepines and their derivatives, “which are basically tranquilizers,” he defined. They are useful at the time of symptoms, for example if someone cannot sleep worried about an activity the next day. “But they don’t target the underlying causes of anxiety,” he said.

The second category of medicines does. Are the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). They affect the level of serotonin in the brain, and this hormone is believed to regulate mood and emotions.

However, most of the specialists consulted by Health they agreed that the best treatment is psychotherapy. In the United States, cognitive behavioral therapy is prevalent for anxiety disorders, but it is not alone.

Serious concerned caucasian senior man posing looking down (Juanmonino/)

Newman’s first recommendation regarding therapy is that it help the person confront the cause of the anxiety, instead of avoiding it, which is the usual human feeling. “One of the biggest problems you see with anxiety disorders is the avoidance that comes when someone tries not to feel anxious,” Newman explained. “The problem is that the avoidance reaffirms fear: the more you shy away from something, the stronger the fear becomes.” Psychotherapy offers a way out of the vicious circle: face the fear.

When a person You don’t know the cause of your anxiety.psychologists recommend that you learn to accept your emotions of worry and fear. “This involves paying attention to your heart beating fast, or noticing tension, or noticing thoughts racing faster,” Siegel said. “Simply understand it and not try to make it go away it removes a great deal of secondary anxiety.”


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