Our bodies like to exist in a state of balance. Even so, they are adapted to respond to situations as the demand requires and then return to normal. For this state of self-regulation to occur we have mechanisms that speed us up and others that slow us down. Our nervous system is organized in such a fashion. When the so-called sympathetic nervous system kicks in we are in ‘fight or flight’ mode and when the parasympathetic nervous system dominates we are in a state of ‘rest and digest’.
Our ‘fight or flight’ mechanism enables us to cope with threats; effectively it represents our survival instinct. When a threat is sensed the brain’s fear center (the amygdala) starts a chain reaction that results in the release of the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. These hormones make the heart beat faster, divert blood to muscles and increase levels of glucose in the blood to act as an energy reserve. The air passages dilate to allow more oxygen to be taken in and digestion slows as energy is diverted for other needs.
Unfortunately our fight or flight capabilities are somewhat lessened in modern living. Instead, we find ourselves subjected to all the stressors that activate the sympathetic nervous system but with outlets that rarely involve fight or flight. When the sympathetic nervous system kicks in it can leave us with some fairly unpleasant physical sensations to deal with including:
- Palpitations and chest pains.
- Dry mouth.
- Muscle tension and stomach cramps.
- Feeling faint and sometimes feelings of unreality.
- Urge to urinate.
- Dry mouth, tightness in the throat and difficulty swallowing.
Anxiety sometimes extends to everyday living and the very dramatic sensations associated with fight or flight is less pronounced. Worry alone can fan the flames of stress and this manifests itself in various physical ways such as sweating, clammy palms, palpitations and sensations of dizziness or feeling faint. The associated muscular tension can lead to bad headaches.
The physical manifestations of anxiety can be so strong that they are frequently confused as signs of some major physical disease or condition. One way to distinguish between signs of anxiety and signs of disease is to monitor whether symptoms diminish when the situation causing anxiety is no longer present. If they do, the causes of the symptoms are anxiety related.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.