The Nervous System and Anxiety – why anxiety thinks it’s helping you
Anxiety is often your brain’s way of trying to protect you. As exhausting and challenging as the experience of anxiety can be, a part of your brain thinks it’s helping to keep you safe. This fact can be, in part, why ‘thinking your way out’ of anxiety can be so tricky – it feels like you’re letting go of a safety blanket.
To best understand anxiety and learn how it may be impacting your life, please speak with a mental health professional. This article can help outline how anxiety is connected with your nervous system, so you can begin to understand what’s happening in your body and brain. This is not a diagnostic tool but a brief guide and starting point.
Why do we experience anxiety?
There are many reasons you may feel anxious, including:
- Environmental factors, i.e. overstimulation or understimulation
- Internal physical factors, i.e. an increased heart rate from too much coffee
- Certain brain chemistry
- Messages from the nervous system
- Unhelpful thought patterns
These are all factors you can better understand with the help of a professional, but let’s discuss an evolutionary reason for anxiety: fight or flight.
Our fight-or-flight response has helped us stay alive for centuries. It’s helped us evolve and avoid deathly situations. It’s that physical reaction that you don’t think about – you just do it. In many ways, the experience of anxiety has allowed the human race to get smarter and stronger by avoiding or defeating potential threats. But as our society has grown more and more modern and comfortable, many people experience far fewer life-threatening situations compared to the days of early homo sapiens.
Even though there are fewer immediate threats to react to, your brain and body don’t clock off. Humans are naturally alert to dangers, and the body will kick into fight-or-flight response whenever necessary. So while we’re not running away from sabre-toothed tigers, anxiety is still waiting for the other shoe to drop. This can cause some people to experience severe anxiety and have a physical response as though their lives were in danger when in reality, the stakes are often a lot lower – say, a difficult conversation or a trip to a crowded supermarket.
How does the nervous system impact anxiety?
The two nervous systems involved in the fight-or-flight and rest and digest responses are: sympathetic and parasympathetic.
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for fight-or-flight mode. It prepares your body to run or fight by doing things like:
- Inhibiting tear production for clearer vision
- Tightening sphincters to stop urination or bowel movements
- Increasing heart rate
- Sending more blood to areas of the body that are essential for immediate survival
- Releasing adrenaline
- Dilating the pupil for better vision at greater distances
- Relaxing bronchi to allow more airflow through the lungs
- Slowing digestion to send more energy to other parts of the body needed to fight or run
- Inhibiting salivation
Once you’re safe from the threat that triggered your sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over to return you to a more ‘normal’ state.
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for rest and digest mode. It brings your body back to a state of homeostasis by doing things like:
- Constricting the pupil for better short vision
- Stimulating salivation
- Relaxing the bladder and sphincters
- Returning you to your resting heart rate
- Constricting bronchi to return breathing to your baseline level
- Producing tears to lubricate the eyes
- Activating the metabolism
Essentially, the parasympathetic nervous system maintains your body at its resting state, which means it’s in charge of undoing what the sympathetic nervous system has done during stress. This can explain why people sometimes urinate or cry right after being scared because their nervous system has inhibited and suddenly released these processes.
Understanding the nervous system to understand anxiety
Understanding how your sympathetic nervous system behaves while stressed can help you minimise or manage some symptoms. It makes sense that an increased heart rate, increased blood flow, a dry mouth and inhibited digestion could leave you feeling anxious. When you can recognise your sympathetic nervous system is trying to protect you, it may make it a little bit easier to think, “thank you, body, for trying but this anxiety actually isn’t making life easier.”
A professional can help you learn to soothe your sympathetic nervous system and encourage your parasympathetic nervous system to take over. They may offer you tips like listing off sensory information that’s around you so the rest and digest system has enough information to understand it’s safe enough to relax, i.e. listing five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear and anything you can smell or taste.
When anxiety is distracting you from enjoying life, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed or hopeless. But with support and the right knowledge there’s plenty you can do to remind your brain that you’re okay and help your body rest and relax.
For a helping hand through times of emotional demand, reach for RESCUE Remedy® to help restore inner balance. If you’re experiencing anxiety for an extended period or it’s severely impacting your lifestyle, please speak with a professional.