Feelings of worry, fear, and panic can be common in everyday life, especially when facing a stress-related situation or challenge. These feelings can be a natural defense mechanism our body experiences as a fight or flight response. However, when fear, worry, and panic become a prominent part of our daily lives, we may struggle with an anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder develops when fear, worry, and panic become out of proportion to the underlying trigger and continue to linger despite the trigger going away. These anxious feelings may affect our productivity at work, sleep cycles, mood, and personal relationships.
Anxiety does not arise as a personal flaw in your character. Still, rather it often stems from an underlying trigger such as past trauma, a major life stressor, a chronic illness, substance abuse, or a co-occurring mental health disorder, and, as a result, treatment is often aimed at not only treating the symptoms of anxiety but also addressing the underlying triggers.
Signs and symptoms of anxiety
- Difficulty concentrating
- Racing thoughts
- Difficulty with sleep
- Heart palpitations
Anxiety can affect our digestive tract
Our stomach and brain are tightly connected through the gut-brain axis, meaning that our brains send signals to our gut to elicit feelings of hunger and satiety and help with digestion. In addition, what we put in our digestive tracts, in terms of our diet, can directly affect patterns of thinking and concentration. Therefore it is no surprise that we may experience nausea when nervous or anxious about a certain situation. When stressed, your brain, through the hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA), releases neurotransmitters and other markers that directly affect gut bacteria. Over time, this change in gut bacteria (microflora) can result in ulcers and worsening pre-existing conditions such as Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome. In the short term, stress and anxiety can give you feelings of heartburn, indigestion, nausea, and food aversion.
Anxiety can affect how we deal with problems
Anxious feelings can cause us to develop poor coping and defense mechanisms. Coping mechanisms are conscious attempts at dealing with or preventing stressful situations, whereas defense mechanisms are unconscious reactions to dealing with stressful situations. Anxiety can cause us to avoid problems by either ignoring them or running away from them, eventually making the pre-existing problem that much bigger. Anxiety can also cause us to react poorly, such as acting out in poor behaviors and emotions such as anger, self-harm, isolating, overreacting, and blaming.
Anxiety can affect our interpersonal relationships
Feelings of anxiety and fear often prevent us from trying new things and experiences and, as a result, often isolate us from loved ones. When we are anxious, we may be unable to leave the house, let alone spend time with others. Anxiety can also lead to feelings of co-dependency, and as a result, you may constantly need to be around others out of fear of being alone. This can be emotionally draining for those you depend on as they may feel an overwhelming sense of having to “help you.” Additionally, when you are experiencing high anxiety levels, others around you can feel that tension and may not know how to deal with it. They may feel like they are walking on eggshells when you are around them and, as a result, may disengage from the relationship.
Anxiety can affect our sleep cycles
The more activated your nervous system is, the more you may struggle to fall asleep. As a result, you may spend hours each night tossing and turning, only to be exhausted upon waking up in the morning. This can create an unhealthy cycle of anxiety, leading to sleepless nights and even more anxiety because you are sleep deprived.
Anxiety can affect our nervous system
When you are anxious, you are in a constant state of flight or fight, meaning that your brain is releasing hormones throughout your body to overcome this state of anxiety. However, high levels of cortisol and epinephrine can cause trouble with concentration and decision-making, making it difficult to perform tasks, work duties and meet deadlines. You may feel as though your nervous system is “fried” because you cannot get anything done that requires concentration.
Anxiety can affect our relationship with drugs and alcohol
When we feel anxious, we often use drugs or alcohol to calm us down. Alcohol and drugs such as benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants meaning that they “relax” our nervous system in the short term and can temporarily relieve our feelings of fear, stress, and anxiety. However, over time, we can develop tolerance to these substances, requiring more alcohol and drugs to obtain the same desired effects, eventually leading to an addiction. Using alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism to tame our anxiety and fear can, over time, worsen our symptoms and lead us to spiral downward into a path of substance abuse. Additionally, withdrawing from alcohol and drugs can provoke severe anxiety symptoms, worsening our already present state of worry.