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Why Anxiety Feels the Way it Does – What You Need to Know to Strengthen Against Anxiety

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The Take-Aways

  • Anxiety can feel awful, but it comes from a strong, healthy brain that is doing exactly what brains are meant to do – protect us and keep us alive. 
  • There’s a really good reason for every physical symptoms that come with anxiety, and understanding this can be a powerful way to turn anxiety around.
  • Anxiety comes from a part of your brain called the amygdala. The amygdala’s job is to be on the constant lookout for danger, and to get us physically ready to deal with that any threats that come our way – and humiliation, embarrassment, being separated from someone important to you – can all count as threat. 
  • When your brain things that might be trouble, it surges you with a cocktail of neurochemicals designed to get you faster, stronger, more powerful, more alert, and more able to physically deal with the threats. This is called the fight of flight response. 
  • Sometimes, your brain might sense danger and get you ready for fight or flight, when there is no need to fight or flee. The problem with this is that there is nothing to burn the neurochemicals that are surging through you and they build up. This is why anxiety can feel so awful – the physical feelings feed into anxious thoughts, which feed back into anxious feelings.
  • Every physical symptom has a good reason for being there, but if you don’t understand where they come from they can drive anxiety about the anxiety – so let’s talk about that.
  • The first thing that happens when your brain surges you with these neurochemicals is your breathing changes from strong deep breaths, probably like your breathing now, to short shallow breaths. This happens because your brain has told your body to stop using up oxygen on strong deep breaths in case it needs that oxygen to fight or flee.
  • When that happens, the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body change. This can cause you to feel a bit dizzy or confused. Again, this is all completely safe and just a sign that your brain is being a little overprotective and getting you ready to physically deal with a ‘threat’ that isn’t actually a threat.
  • During anxiety your heart beats faster is to send that chemical fuel around to your body – your arms so they can fight and your legs so they can flee. It’s all normal and completely safe, but again, it can feel awful.
  • Your body starts to cool itself down so it doesn’t overheat in case it has to fight or flee. It does this by sweating, which is why you anxiety can make you feel clammy even on a cold day.
  • The muscles in your arms and legs can feel tense or wobbly. This is because of the neurochemical surge which is getting your arms ready to fight and your legs ready to flee – just in case.
  • Anything that isn’t absolutely essential for your survival in the moment is shut down to conserve energy in case you need that energy for fight or flight. One of the processes that gets wound down is digestion. This can give you butterflies, and it can make you feel like you’re going to vomit.
  • In the midst of anxiety, you might feel as though you want to burst into tears or you might feel really angry. This is because the amygdala is also in charge of other emotions. When it’s switched to high volume, as it is during anxiety, other emotions might also be switched to high volume.
  • There is a really simple, really powerful way to turn this all around and it’s by breathing. Iff someone tells you to ‘just breathe’ while you’re feeling anxious, it might not go down so well. This is because an anxious brain is a busy brain and during anxiety, it might have trouble accessing strong, deep breathing because that survival fight or flight instinct is telling it to breathe short, shallow breaths. The way around this is to practice strong deep breathing when you’re calm so it becomes more automatic and easier for your brain to access.
  • First though, it helps to understand why strong deep breathing is so powerful during anxiety. Breathing initiates ‘the relaxation response’. This response was identified by a cardiologist at Harvard as being a powerful way to neutralise the surging of fight or flight neurochemicals, and bringing the brain and body back to a calmer state.
  • The relaxation response is automatic, which means you don’t have to believe it works – it just will – but you do need to switch it on.
  • To activate the relaxation response, breathe in for three, hold for one, out for three. Repeat this a few times.
  • The really important thing is to practise it when you’re feeling calm. It seems ridiculous to have to practice breathing because it’s what we do, and we do it every minute of every day of our lives, but this type of breathing especially during anxiety isn’t easy. It’s not an automatic response. Your automatic response is to go to short shallow breathing so you need to retrain your brain to access strong deep breathing when you’re anxious.
  • If you you’re going into a situation that might trigger your anxiety have something on your wrist on your hand to remind you to take strong deep breaths, and over time this will start to become an automatic response, making it easier for your brain to access during anxiety. 


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