What anxiety can do to the body and how to handle it

Anxiety is a complex but common complaint that most people suffer with at some point in their lives. And let’s be honest, the past year hasn’t helped any of us.

But it can be useful to get to know this internal intruder. What happens in the body when anxiety strikes? How should you handle the rollercoaster? And how can you ease things over time?

When anxiety strikes, what’s going on?

Panic, that familiar surge of fear, nausea, numbness. These scary sensations do nothing to ease the onset of anxiety. Often, the physical symptoms that accompany those initial uneasy feelings can snowball into full panic mode. So, what’s actually going on in your body?

“Well, although it may not feel like it, your body is activating a highly sophisticated response,” says fitness expert Laura Williams, who has an additional qualification in mental health awareness. “The chemical processes that help you respond to a real or imagined fear are vast, and include dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline.

“Breathing gets faster, your heart rate increases and you may experience palpitations and perspiration, a digestive upset, headaches and/or a loss of appetite. This can lead to fatigue, troubled sleep and muscular aches and pains.”

Read more: What your heart rate says about you

In addition, she says, anxiety is linked to longer-term conditions such as insomnia, digestive problems, chronic pain, depression or substance misuse.

Anxiety can also be a symptom of an unrelated condition, such as diabetes, thyroid and heart disease.

When it comes to solutions, Ms Williams suggests a two-pronged approach.

Short-term solutions

Picture the scene: you feel fearful of an upcoming situation. Anxiety takes hold and what started as a whisper of unease now takes the form of a gut-wrenching fear that threatens to root you to the spot until it passes. What should you do?

“Pause,” advises Ms Williams. “Be ruthless with that racing mind as you breathe in for a count of four and out for a count of four, focusing on nothing else. If you can, do this for one full minute.

“Now you’ve bought yourself some time, ask yourself the question, ‘Am I in genuine danger, or is there a small possibility that this is a little bit like a faulty car alarm going off?’

Read more: Anxiety is killing us slowly, but there is hope

“If you can, walk a few steps. Focus only on the sensation of your feet on the ground beneath you. And then try and move to your next task. Whether that’s joining a work meeting, taking a stroll or popping to the shop, try and take that courageous step into the next part of your day.”

Long-term strategies

“Consider becoming the boss of your anxiety,” notes Ms Williams. “Your narrative might sound something like this: ‘Yes, I know I suffer with you, Anxiety, but from now on, you will be known as The A Word. You are a symptom, and I will treat you as such. I am the one who makes the plans and decides if we cancel, rearrange or follow through. You can pump out all the chemicals you like, but know this: life will go on.'”

Ms Williams endorses getting a regular exercise habit, too. “You don’t have to befriend the burpee or subscribe to the spinning movement: something as doable as a brisk walk or light jog can promote sufficient brain chemical activity to enhance your mood and successfully distract you,” she says. “Carve out a minimum of 15 minutes a day for an activity that raises your heart rate.”

It’s also worth trying mindfulness, something nearly all of us know about now, but few actually do properly. “In its simplest terms, mindfulness is the practice of remaining in the present moment. By focusing on bodily sensations, feelings and thoughts (thought processes, rather than thought content), that racing head and churning gut may subside,” says Ms Williams. “Developing an instinctive mindfulness attitude and response takes practice, but the effects will be obvious from the start.”

Read more: Five expert ways to calm the mind

It’s also really important to build a network. Not just of friends, but all sorts of allies. “An anxiety support group may serve you well when it comes to voicing your anxiety experience,” advises Ms Williams. “The power of identification is vast and solutions will be offered. Or you could join a local volunteering group. Saving the world may not be on your agenda, but volunteering groups tend to attract warm, welcoming, competent individuals who provide the perfect antidote, in a new setting, to all that rumination and projection.”

And finally, she suggests reaching out – and out and out: “Never, ever hesitate to pick up the phone to the professionals. Your GP is well schooled in anxiety: they know the signs, and they know where to direct you. Or you can pick up the phone to other professionals.”

Beyond Blue provides information and support to help everyone in Australia achieve their best possible mental health, whatever their age and wherever they live.

The Black Dog Institute has some great online tools for managing anxiety, they can also point you in the right direction to seek professional help.

Health Direct is another resource available to Australians looking for help managing anxiety and other mental health issues.

Do you experience anxiety often? How do you manage it? Have you felt an increase in anxiety in the past year?

– With PA

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Written by Claire Spreadbury

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