The Biological Effects and Consequences of Anxiety

Anxiety activates the autonomic nervous system – the flight or fight response – which can express itself through a number of different physiological (and generally unpleasant) bodily symptoms including panic attacks, fast pulse, palpitations, shallow breathing, shortness of breath, chest pain/tightness, sweating, choking, headaches, insomnia, irritability, uncontrollable muscle tension/twitches, trembling, feeling faint/unreal, tingling in hands/arms/legs, tightness in throat, dry mouth, problems with speech, fear of dying, going mad and losing control. Research tells us that most people have suffered some form of panic attack and experienced symptoms similar to the above at some time in their life.

The flight or flight response is based on adrenalin, the hormone of fear. Adrenalin works by prioritising the blood supply, making sure that oxygenated blood is available in the arms and legs for a quick getaway and through the brain to help us make split second decisions. The blood supply is taken from areas of the body where it is not needed in times of danger, such as the stomach and sexual organs, because if one is in a life-threatening situation, they are not going to stop and eat a meal or have sex. This is usually the reason why when someone is continually stressed, he or she may feel sick, is unable to eat and may go off sex.

The body can act inappropriately to the strains and toils of everyday living and adrenalin production may be unnecessarily initiated in response to a minor stressor. A chain reaction is then set in motion – one starts to sweat, feel sick and suffer palpitations and the whole stress response takes over, resulting in anxiety. One can then start worrying about the way they are feeling and this then exaggerates their anxiety and a chain reaction begins. From this, secondary fears can also develop – fear of bodily sensations caused by anxiety – commonly referred to as fear of fear. The unpleasant bodily sensations of anxiety and panic can then be feared as much as, or even greater than, the situation or event that triggered the anxiety response.

Ideally, the stress response should switch on and off when necessary. In simplistic terms, the sympathetic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system respond in conjunction with ones fear and anxiety. To restore balance, the parasympathetic nervous system responds by turning off the stress reaction, allowing the individual to return to peacefulness again. However, the sympathetic nervous system can malfunction, leaving the individual in a state of constant red alert. This situation puts strain on the mind and body and if it continues, can lead to depression. A continual anxiety response raises blood pressure, largely due to hormones and chemical reactions, which do not let up as they would in a normal reaction to fear. In such a situation, it is therefore important to break the vicious circle of the fear response and to learn to manage one’s anxiety successfully by bringing it under control.

Sources from which relief can be obtained and help the individual to control anxiety are correct breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, stress management, regular exercise and diet. In theory, anxiety management is relatively simplistic and easy to do, and can be carried out by everyone. Nevertheless, to achieve success and sustain recovery requires a great deal of commitment and effort on behalf of the sufferer.


Learning to use abdominal breathing, as first aid for anxiety and panic sensations is invaluable. One of the simplest things to do is to learn to breathe correctly as this helps to reduce adrenalin production. Generally speaking, we all breathe very shallowly which is a natural habit that everyone falls into. This shallow breathing can lead to the wrong levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen in one’s blood. If this happens, the brain can interpret this shallow breathing as an indication of danger. Therefore, when anxiety or panic strikes, one needs to learn how to breathe more deeply and to get air right down to the bottom of one’s lungs. When air reaches this part of one’s lungs, correct gas exchange occurs.

Correct breathing can be achieved by expanding one’s abdomen, then drawing air into one’s lungs. One should then hold this for about three seconds. Once the three seconds have passed, one should release their breath slowly. One should not feel concerned if they feel slightly light headed when carrying out this exercise, as this is an indication that the gases are at the right levels in the body. For optimum affect, these breathing exercises should be practiced at least three times an hour. They can act not only as a preventative measure, but also as a coping mechanism when anxiety strikes. It is shallow breathing at times of high anxiety, which primarily brings on panic attacks in many different forms, and abdominal breathing will help to control them.


If an anxiety state becomes common in an individual, the cumulative effect of mood swings, irritability and loss of appetite can soon create nutritional deficiencies as a result of altered eating habits. These deficiencies can adversely affect the central nervous system, which, in turn, can then make the sufferer’s anxiety even worse. Thus, a downward spiral is created.

Food also plays a major role in controlling one’s anxiety and the following has been suggested:
green vegetables, nuts, low fat cheese, bananas, and seaweed for their B vitamin’; live yogurt for the bacteria that synthesize B vitamins; blackcurrants, blueberries, bilberries, cherries and cranberries for their vitamin C and bioflavonoids; complex carbohydrates such as pasta, rice and potatoes; honey and dried fruit for their tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid component of protein.

It has also been suggested that it may be useful to eat less refined sugar and fewer carbohydrates, drink less alcohol and avoid items containing caffeine such as tea, coffee, fizzy drinks and chocolate etc. If you are a smoker, you could also try not to smoke too much as nicotine is a stimulant and causes the heart to beat faster. It would not be realistic to expect someone to give up smoking immediately, as this would be even more difficult when someone is suffering from anxiety. However, it may be worth trying to cut down or smoking a lower tar and nicotine brand. It is also important to take regular exercise. A ten-minute walk may be sufficient, although more vigorous exercise may help use up excess adrenalin stored in the body.

There is no magic, off the shelf’, ‘quick-fix’, cure-all, pain-free solution to overcoming anxiety. Recovery tends to be a process that includes, in addition to proven anxiety techniques, experimentation and exploration of different sources and methods to devise a recovery program that is suited to the uniqueness of the individual.


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