Anxiety is a feeling of intense stress, fear, or panic. Most people will only experience anxiety during stressful times, like when moving to a new house or starting a new job. However, many people who experience these feelings more persistently may actually be suffering from an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders can affect your daily life, including work, relationships, and even your physical health.
When anxiety flares up, it causes not only mental strain, but also physical. This is because anxiety and stress cause the body to create two powerful chemicals: adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline is a fast-acting chemical that has short-term effects, working with the respiratory organs, muscular systems, and our senses. It is intended to ready us up for action, such as escaping from a dangerous situation, or pushing through a marathon.
When we’re not in a situation that requires an adrenaline boost, it sits in our systems and can cause unwanted side effects.
The purpose of adrenaline is to:
Therefore, unwanted physical effects of adrenaline include:
Cortisol is a slow-acting chemical that stays in our body for longer, and when levels of it are high for a prolonged period of time it can negatively affect the systems responsible for immunity, reproduction, and digestion .
Physical effects of cortisol include:
Many people who experience anxiety will recognise these as physical symptoms they experience during a flare-up, or chronic conditions they have developed as a result of long-term anxiety disorders.
Adrenaline, or epinephrine, is the “fight-or-flight” hormone, and our brains produce a sudden surge of it when we are faced with a particularly stressful, dangerous, or exciting situation.
We typically feel this as an “adrenaline rush”, and while there are people who seek out this feeling, it can make an anxiety attack worse by bringing on what’s known as the “panic cycle” .
When we feel anxious, our bodies produce adrenaline and cortisol. These can then bring about physical symptoms that make us self-conscious, such as stomach cramps, sweating, and shaking.
Our anxiety worsens as a result of that self-consciousness, causing us to produce even more adrenaline. This is typically what causes anxiety disorders, as the body can over-react when we feel even moderately anxious, and send us into this spiral.
It sounds like a flawed system, and those who regularly suffer from anxiety attacks and experience these symptoms a lot will often feel upset by them. However, anxiety is the brain’s response to perceived danger, and adrenaline is intended to be put to immediate use in order to keep us safe.
During an anxiety attack, it can be easy to get into the panic cycle, and difficult to break out of it. The feeling of paralysis that often comes during an attack can make it difficult to think clearly at the moment, particularly if it doesn’t seem to have a specific trigger.
For that reason, if you are susceptible to feeling anxious and have experienced panic attacks in the past, it is important to learn how to combat it.
Exercising during an anxiety attack has been proven  to help lessen the symptoms, as it allows our bodies to put the adrenaline to use. Cardio exercise, such as going for a jog, also satisfies the “flight” response, as our muscles and lungs, which are the most affected by the adrenaline, get a workout.
Warning signs of a panic attack, such as breathlessness and light sweating, can arise up to an hour before the real symptoms begin. If you do not yet feel anxious but become aware of a change in your breathing, it is possible to pre-empt an anxiety attack by doing some exercise, practising breathing exercises, or finding a task to focus your mind on.
Those who are prone to feelings of anxiety are advised to avoid stimulating chemicals, such as nicotine and caffeine, as these produce similar physiological effects to adrenaline and can therefore make your symptoms worse. A healthy diet with less artificial sugar can also help to naturally balance out your glucose levels, which rise during a panic attack.
High levels of adrenaline will likely affect your ability to fall, and stay, asleep. It is therefore recommended to make an effort to relax before going to bed, such as by meditating, practising yoga, having a soothing bath, or indulging in a hobby.
Many with anxiety find that a combination of prescribed medication and talking therapies can minimise the symptoms, or at least make them more manageable.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a popular talking therapy for dealing with anxiety, as it teaches you how to reframe the negative thoughts that can keep you stuck in the adrenaline-fuelled panic cycle.
The most important thing to know is that anxiety is manageable, and it doesn’t have to take over your life. There are numerous guides online for coping with anxiety, and a therapist can help you find the methods that work best for you. These are some more general tips that many with anxiety have used to deal with stress.
Mindfulness is the art of being present in the moment. Rather than dwelling on the past, or worrying about what could happen in the future, take time to focus on what is happening right now. Home in on your surroundings, the noises you can hear, your breathing, listen to some soothing music or a podcast, and learn to quieten the distracting, negative thoughts that will worsen your anxiety.
Having a supportive friend group or close family relationships can be a huge help when dealing with anxiety. Surround yourself with people who help to reinforce a positive self-image, as negative self-talk can be a big trigger for anxiety attacks.
It’s important that you find someone you can open up to when anxiety flares, and who will be there for you when things are tough, so reach out to a therapist if you are uncomfortable talking to people in your personal life.
Engaging in a hobby or perfecting a skill can help to distract you when anxiety starts to bubble up. Learning something new also raises dopamine levels in the body , which is a happy hormone that will make you feel rewarded for putting the time in.
As we’ve discussed, physical activity can burn up the adrenaline that fuels your anxiety. While cardio is often best for this, even mild activities can help to regulate your breathing, steady your heart rate, and restore chemical balance in your body. Put some music on and go for a gentle walk outside, or exercise along with a yoga video – it doesn’t need to be extreme, so don’t burn yourself out.
If you are stuck in a rut and anxiety is preventing you from investing in yourself, it can be helpful to offer support to others instead. Reach out to a friend who may be having a hard time, help out a colleague who is struggling with a project, or volunteer in your community.
Care homes and animal rescue centres are always looking for people who can provide company, or even just a small donation. The sense of reward and purpose you get from this will help to improve your confidence and your self-worth.