I’ve struggled with anxiety since childhood, but it wasn’t until my early 20s that I hit a turning point in managing my anxiety. That was when I took a class called “Stressed Out,” which was all about the science behind anxiety and stress. In it, the instructor taught about the stress response and its physical and emotional effects; in our “labs,” we participated in activities that are scientifically proven to calm the body and mind.
Gaining an understanding of what was going on in my body when I experienced anxiety and stress, and observing how it responded to various calming strategies, ultimately became one of the biggest influences in my journey toward becoming a calmer, healthier person.
If you suffer from anxiety, this knowledge may prove useful to you as well. I believe that understanding the science behind anxiety can remove some of the emotions that people feel around the issue, and in turn, allows them to approach anxiety management rationally and scientifically.
Your Body on Stress
To understand how your body reacts to stress and how to calm it down, you first need to understand the nervous system. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) allows your body to operate largely on autopilot – at least when it comes to basic functions like breathing, digesting food, keeping blood flowing, etc. This allows us to focus their mental energy on other important tasks, like feeding ourselves, procreating, and ensuring the well-being of ourselves and our families. The ANS is divided into two distinct systems – the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
As we evolved, it was critically important that we developed an effective response to danger – a survival mechanism. When faced with a life-threatening situation, it would be inefficient if we had to stop and deliberate over what to do. As an early human ancestor, that saber-tooth tiger would have already sunk its teeth into you while you were trying to figure out what to do about it.
This is where the sympathetic nervous system kicks in. As soon as a threat of danger is perceived, our brains – specifically the amygdala – send signal to the hypothalamus, which then begins to release a flood of stress hormones into the body, starting with adrenaline. This is when your blood pressure increases, your muscles contract, and you begin to breathe faster and sweat. As adrenaline starts to circulate, stored sugar and fat is released into your blood stream for an even greater energy surge. This all happens in an instant, and if you manage to escape the threat immediately, your body begins to return to normal. However, if you still feel threatened, you begin to release another stress hormone called cortisol, which keeps your body primed to face or flee from danger. Eventually, as the threat subsides, the other half of the nervous system – the parasympathetic nervous system – helps to bring us back to our baseline state.
The Stress Response in Modern Times
This bodily function was invaluable in ancient times, when danger was all around us, and is still critical for modern humans facing with bodily harm. Unfortunately, it has complicated things quite a bit for those of us who live in developed countries and face relatively few life-threatening situations in our day-to-day existence. Our bodies are not able to distinguish between the stress of being chased by a deadly predator and the stress of losing one’s job. The brain interprets stress as stress, and our bodies are put on high alert.
This is where it the problems begin. We aren’t meant to consistently remain on high alert, but that tends to be what happens. Many of the stressful situations we face in our lives today do not have a clear-cut end point, and do not allow us to fight or flee from them. For example, if one of your stress sources is being stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic every morning and every evening during your commute, there is very little you can actually do in that situation. You can’t flee, and although it may sometimes be tempting to fight the other drivers, you know that it won’t do any good. So you remain in your car, clenching your muscles, blood pressure sky high, agonizing about when you’ll arrive at work or whether you’ll get home in time to kiss your kids goodnight.
When there’s no clear time for the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in and put the brakes on your stress response, those stress hormones and the excess blood sugar and fat remain in your body at high levels. If you were actually sticking around to fight the threat, or if you were fleeing away as fast as possible, you’d be using up the extra energy and the stress hormones would subside as the situation resolved. But when time after time you experience the stress response without the subsequent physical exertion and ultimate resolution, you run the risk of some pretty unpleasant symptoms, including:
- Gastrointestinal upset and disorders
- Pain and tension in the muscles
- Weight gain, especially around the mid-section
- Memory loss
- High blood pressure and clogged arteries
- Heart attack
- Brain changes that lead to chronic anxiety and depression
The Good News
The upside is that while we can’t control when our stress response is activated (otherwise we’d probably choose not to fume over a long line at the grocery store), we DO have influence over the activation of our parasympathetic nervous system. This means we actually have the ability to put the brakes on our body’s stress response.
The following are the two most effective steps you can take to signal your parasympathetic nervous system to take over:
Breathe deeply. This is my go-to quick-and-easy way to soothe myself when I’m experiencing general anxiety. When you focus on taking deep, steady breaths rooted in your belly rather than your chest, filling and emptying your lungs completely, you actually FORCE the sympathetic nervous system to step down and for the parasympathetic system to kick in. (Read more about breathing exercises for anxiety)
Get moving. The best way to use up the adrenaline and extra energy in your bloodstream is to get some exercise. Go for a brisk walk, spend some time on the treadmill, or do whatever kind of physical activity you prefer. Even something as simple as five or 10 minutes of jumping jacks will have an impact. The bottom line: break a sweat and your body will change gears quickly.