We are currently living in very uncertain times. For the last 5 years anyone who switches on a News Channel or read a newspaper will be bombarded with stories of fear and depressing articles.

Whether it is climate change, climate crisis, climate emergency, covid, the war in Eastern Europe, the fuel crisis or the spiralling cost of living, there is no escape and it’s causing a great deal of anxiety in many people.

So what is anxiety?

Anxiety is what keeps us safe from danger and has done since we were cavemen. It is usually trigger by the amygdala part of the brain or what I refer to it as “Lizard Brain.”

The reason I call it that is because every species has a “Lizard Brain” which alerts them when there is imminent danger. For example, when cavemen used to hunt for food and came across a Sabre Tooth Tiger the body would go into “fight-or-flight mode” exactly what a Zebra would do if confronted by a lion.

Anxiety, the body’s response to stress, is how your body alerts you to threats and helps you get ready to deal with them. This is why it’s referred to as fight-or-flight response.

What is Fight or Flight response?

The fight or flight response is an automatic physiological reaction to an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening. The perception of threat activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers an acute stress response that prepares the body to fight or flee. These responses are evolutionary adaptations to increase chances of survival in threatening situations. Overly frequent, intense, or inappropriate activation of the fight or flight response is implicated in a range of clinical conditions including most anxiety disorders.

Everyone has anxiety from time to time, but chronic anxiety can interfere with your quality of life. While perhaps most recognised for behavioural changes, anxiety can also have serious consequences on your physical health.

What ae the physical responses to anxiety?

•             Stomach pain, nausea, or digestive trouble

•             Headache

•             Insomnia or other sleep issues (waking up frequently, for example)

•             Weakness or fatigue

•             Rapid breathing or shortness of breath

•             Pounding heart or increased heart rate

•             Sweating profusely

•             Trembling or shaking

•             Muscle tension or pain

How does the body react when the fight-or-flight response is triggered?

Here’s what can happen during the stress response:

•             Your heart rate and blood pressure increases. This means you’re probably breathing more quickly and heavily, which is helping to move nutrients and oxygen out to your major muscle groups.

•             You’re pale or have flushed skin. Your blood flow is being redirected so you might experience feeling cool or like your hands and feet are cold and clammy. Your face might also appear flushed as blood and hormones circulate throughout your body.

•             Blunt pain response is compromised. If your sympathetic nervous system is triggered by combat or traffic collision, it’s not uncommon to only feel your injuries once you’ve returned to safety and have had time to calm down. This is one reason that people in car accidents don’t typically feel pain from their injuries until afterwards.

•             Dilated pupils. Your pupils will dilate to take in more light so that you can see better. 

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•             You’re on edge.  (Hyper-vigilant)You’re more aware and observant and in response you’re looking and listening for things that could be dangerous. Your senses are heightened and you’re keenly aware of what’s going on around you.

•             Memories can be affected. Sometimes during stressful experiences your memories of the event can be altered. Your memories can be very clear or vivid or they can be blacked out.

•             You’re tense or trembling. Stress hormones are circulating throughout your body, so you might feel tense or twitchy, like your muscles are about to move at any given moment.

•             Your bladder might be affected. It’s not uncommon to lose voluntary control of your bladder or bowels in a truly stressful or dangerous situation.

During the fight or flight response your body is trying to prioritize, so anything it doesn’t need for immediate survival is placed on the back burner. This means that digestion, reproductive and growth hormone production and tissue repair are all temporarily halted. Instead, your body is using all its energy on the most crucial priorities and functions.

I you have a pet dog, when you walk them usually the first thing the do is poop. This is a result to fight or flight as emptying their bowels enables them to run faster. This also applies to humans and why you may suddenly need to use the toilet.

The Gut is like a second brain.

The stress response can be triggered in a single instant, but how quickly you calm down and return to your natural state is going to vary from person to person (and it will depend on what caused it). Typically it takes 20 to 30 minutes for your body to return to normal and to calm down.

What is an Anxiety Disorder?

 If you experience anxiety on a regular basis that interrupts your daily activities, you may suffer from an anxiety disorder.

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  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a common mental health condition where a person has obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. OCD can affect men, women and children. Some people start having symptoms early, often around puberty, but it usually starts during early adulthood.
  • Social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, is a long-term and overwhelming fear of social situations. It’s a common problem that usually starts during the teenage years. It can be very distressing and have a big impact on your life. For some people it gets better as they get older.
  • Specific phobia is an intense, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger. Although adults with phobias may realize that these fears are irrational, even thinking about facing the feared object or situation brings on severe anxiety symptoms.
  • It’s normal to feel anxious from time to time, especially if your life is stressful. However, excessive, ongoing anxiety and worry that are difficult to control and interfere with day-to-day activities may be a sign of generalized anxiety disorder.
  • It’s possible to develop generalized anxiety disorder as a child or an adult. Generalized anxiety disorder has symptoms that are similar to panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other types of anxiety, but they’re all different conditions.
  • Living with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can be a long-term challenge. In many cases, it occurs along with other anxiety or mood disorders. In most cases, generalized anxiety disorder improves with psychotherapy or medications. Making lifestyle changes, learning coping skills and using relaxation techniques also can help.
  • Panic disorder is when you’ve had at least two panic attacks (you feel terrified and overwhelmed, even though you’re not in any danger) and constantly worry and change your routine to keep from having another one.
  • Agoraphobia is a rare type of anxiety disorder. If you have it, your fears keep you from getting out into the world. You avoid certain places and situations because you think you’ll feel trapped and not be able to get help.
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How is Anxiety Disorder Treated?

The two main treatments for anxiety disorders are psychotherapy and medications. You may benefit most from a combination of the two. It may take some trial and error to discover which treatments work best for you.

Some ways to manage anxiety disorders include learning about anxiety, mindfulness, relaxation techniques, correct breathing techniques, dietary adjustments, exercise, learning to be assertive, building self-esteem, cognitive therapy, exposure therapy, structured problem solving, medication and support groups.

 Facts about Anxiety?

Many of us worry about all kinds of things: Work, relationships, money, health. Some concerns are real and valid, but many are unnecessary. When you worry every day about “what ifs” (the “what if disease”) and worse-case scenarios, it begins to interfere with your daily life and it controls you.

85% of what we worry about never happens. Now, there’s a study that proves it. This study looked into how many of our imagined calamities never materialize. In this study, subjects were asked to write down their worries over an extended period of time and then identify which of their imagined misfortunes did not actually happen an important lesson worth learning.

 Research studies concludes;  85% of what subjects are  worried about never happened, and with the 15% that did happen, 79%of subjects discovered either they could handle the difficulty better than expected, or the difficulty taught them an important lesson worth learning.

What can I do if I’m experiencing Anxiety?

Remember to breathe

Stop for a moment and focus on breathing deeply. Sit up straight, then take a long breath through your nose, hold it for the count of three, then exhale slowly, while relaxing the muscles in your face, jaw, shoulders and abdominal area. This will help slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure. Practice your deep breathing from time to time so that it becomes second nature to do it when under stress.

Take a mental step back

Anxiety tends to be focused on the future, so instead, try to focus on the present.  Experts suggest that you ask yourself what is happening and what, if anything, needs to be done right now. If nothing needs to be done now, make a conscious decision to revisit the situation later in the day, when you are calmer.

Meditate

Research shows that practicing mindfulness meditation can reduce anxiety and other psychological stresses. We are all capable of mindfulness, but it is easier to do when we have practiced and made it a habit. I will go into further depth about Mindfulness Mediation on a future blog.

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Reaching out

Telling a trusted friend or family member how you are feeling is a very personal decision, but those who are close to you can be a tremendous resource for handling anxiety. Talking to someone else, preferably in person or by phone can offer a new perspective on your situation.

Physical activity

All forms of exercise are good for you and help ease the symptoms of anxiety. Even gentle forms of exercise, such as walking or yoga release those feel-good chemicals.

Be kind to yourself

Sometimes you just need to do something to help you feel better. That may mean getting a massage, or a soothing facial. To relax quickly, put a warmed heat wrap around your neck and shoulders. Close your eyes and relax the muscles in your face and neck. Sometimes it helps to simply disconnect from the noise of the world. Even if you only have five minutes, turn off your phone, computer and television and let the world turn without you for a little while. Silent time can be soothing.

Creativity

If you have a creative streak, use it. The arts offer an outlook for all of those anxious feelings. If you are artistic, take a few minutes to draw or paint how you are feeling. Keep a soothing picture of a beach or your “happy place” where you can look at it and take a mental vacation. Expressive writing has been shown to help with anxiety and depression. Keeping a gratitude journal reduces negative thoughts and helps you remember all the good things in your life. Try writing in your gratitude journal at bedtime. It may help you sleep better. Blogging helps me.

Remember to Breathe?

The 4-7-8 breathing technique is based on pranayama breathing exercises. Pranayama is the ancient yogic practice of controlling your breath. These types of mindfulness breathing exercises have been shown to have many benefits for stress reduction and relaxation.

You can practice 4-7-8 breathing anywhere and at any time. When you’re first learning, try to practice at least twice a day, but you can do it as often as you want. Only do it for four cycles in a row in the beginning. After you get used to it, you can work up to eight cycles. You may feel lightheaded at first, but this will pass.

To use the 4-7-8 technique, focus on the following breathing pattern:

  • Empty the lungs of air.
  • Breathe in quietly through the nose for 4 seconds.
  • Hold the breath for a count of 7 seconds.
  • Exhale forcefully through the mouth, pursing the lips for 8 seconds.
  • Repeat the cycle up to 4 times.

Benefits of Deep, Slow Breathing

  • Reduced anxiety
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved sleep
  • Improved concentration
  • Less pain

Cigarette smoking is associated with some anxiety disorders, but the direction of the association between smoking and specific anxiety disorders has not been determined.

Summary

Everyone experiences anxiety and fear at times – these are normal and helpful human emotions that help us deal with danger. However, some people experience excessive and irrational anxiety and worries that become ongoing and distressing, and that interfere with their daily lives.

If you find yourself experiencing excessive or irrational anxiety, consult with your GP or other professional.