Understanding Anxiety – The Physical Perspective

Anxiety is part of our natural defense system. If we didn’t get anxious about dangerous situations we probably wouldn’t live very long. The process of anxiety triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response – a vital defense system which is common to all mammals and most other animals as well.

The fight or flight response

Imagine you’re walking along a dark street at night. Suddenly from out of the shadows a large man appears with a knife and tries to stab you. You have two choices – to run away or to fight. Fight or flight.

Whatever you decide to do it’s important that your body works as well as it can if you are to survive. You need to be able to rely on your muscles to run or to fight back and you must stay alert to other possible dangers – the man may have an accomplice for example. Whether you choose fight or flight you need to be at your best in order to survive.

The body’s way of preparing us for peak performance is what we call anxiety. It involves a lot of physical changes which can seem frightening and confusing until we learn to understand their meaning.

Physical symptoms of anxiety

Muscle tension is one of the most common physical symptoms. It is the body’s way of storing up energy in the muscles in readiness for action. The more energy is stored the greater the tension we feel. Sometimes people experience aching muscles or a trembling sensation. This can result in uncontrollable shaking as the muscles store up more and more energy. Imagine the tension in a heavy spring as it gets pressed down. In many ways the tension in our muscles is just like that.

Of course all that energy uses fuel and the more tense we become the more fuel we need. The body’s fuel supply is controlled by breathing and blood flow or circulation. Blood is pumped around the body by the heart to provide nutrients and oxygen to the muscles and tissues. At times of anxiety more fuel is needed so the heart rate speeds up and often it feels as though the heart will ‘explode’ as it fights to keep the muscles properly fuelled. Also breathing speeds up and becomes more shallow so people begin to ‘gasp’ for breath. All this extra physical exertion provides heat and so the body begins to sweat – our natural cooling mechanism.

In order to get enough energy to the large muscles of the body such as legs, arms and the abdominal muscles blood supply to the less important areas is reduced. That’s why some people experience a tingling sensation (pins and needles) in their hands or feet. It also explains the churning stomach or butterflies sensation. That simply means that the system is working efficiently in order to keep us safe. Incidentally the need to use the lavatory is just another part of the same process. It is no more than a sign that things are working as they should.

Remember the attacker in the street we talked about earlier? You’d have a much better chance of escaping or defeating him and his cronies with all that energy stored up in preparation for fight or flight.