• Michelle Partington

Anxiety – a physical reaction.

Today I attended my first counselling session in over 12 months. Going off my last bout of counselling I was anxious about the whole process. I was worried about reliving the trauma over and over again but actually this was different.

Instead of going straight from the throat my counsellor directed the session towards explaining anxiety. It was actually really insightful so I decided to post it. The following is an account of my session today. It provides a great explanation about what’s happening to our bodies when we are anxious. It is evidance that this is a REAL symptom of a REAL physical reaction.

I hope this blog truly helps all of you who also suffer with anxiety. I will not be posting all my sessions as I have to concentrate on me so that I am able to recover. I will share what I feel will be of help to you, especially those of you out there who are not seeking help at the moment. It may not be for everyone but as long as it helps some of you that is enough.


Anxiety is a response to a threat. It’s a mental defence mechanism, somewhat spontaneous. If a bull is chasing you in a field you get this extra power to run faster as well as the ability to jump a fence to escape. Something you wouldnt normerly be able to jump under ‘normal’ circumstances. However, stick a threat behind you and you can do anything it’s that powerful. Another example is that if you stick your finger on a flame you would move it immediately. It’s a very quick mechanism, you won’t even think about ‘shall I move my finger, shall I not’, it happens naturally. So there are 3 characteristics: very fast, very powerful and it’s automatic. There is nothing you can do about it, it’s out of your control.

So how does it work? First you perceive a threat which is identified through your 5 senses which are: sight, sound, taste, feel, smell. Once we perceive a threat a message is sent to the brain and then sent to the adrenal glands which excretes adrenaline. Once adrenaline gets into the system the whole body changes. The first thing it does is speed up the heart rate, beating faster to send the nutrients required for the muscles to do its job. The heart beats so fast that we sense it and when you sense it its called palpitations. The heart beats so fast it can out beat it’s own blood supply. When it does that you get missed heartbeats,  double heartbeats, ectopics etc. This causes you to worry that you are going to have a heart attack, thinking it’s going to stop any minute. It goes back into sinus rhythm once the threat has gone. It is very scary though which only exacerbates the threat.

The other thing that happens is that the blood system robs Peter to pay Paul. The bloods job is to take the nutrients to the muscles but it has to come from somewhere. So adrenaline takes blood away from the skin thus taking the heat system away causing the skin to start to feel cold. This takes the colour away from the skin and it goes pale. The skin however has a way of rewarding itself by making the hairs stand on end to try to rewarm itself. With the hair standing on end it can give an electric cold sensations, felt mainly at the back of the neck. If you don’t understand what it is this again can exacerbate the threat.

Something else that happens is in the brain. The internal part of the brain is well supplied with blood. This is the mechanism which keeps the heart beating, keeps us breathing and keeps us conscious amongst other things. There are 4 arteries in the neck which feeds the internal element of the brain. The outside of the brain, the cortex, is the computer which processes all our information. It manages our thinking, processes and our memory etc. During an anxiety attack blood is taken away from this part of the brain. We don’t need it because we are on automatic pilot at this point. Even if you wanted to think the situation through you couldn’t. Again this exacerbates the threat because you can’t process anything which makes it more threatening. So the cortex of the brain shuts off because the blood is being redirected to the muscles. That in itself starts to cause trouble because the inside of the brain thinks ‘shit I could be next here, I’d better put you on the floor’. This then causes a dizzy sensation when your anxious because the brain is panicking, giving you a fainting sensation. However you cannot faint because the blood pressure has gone up due to the heart beating faster.

Working down the body your throat dries up in order to increase the volume of the blood because you don’t need to swallow. Sadly the gastrointestinal system is on the same system as anxiety so if your anxious it’s going to affect your gut causing butterflies and a sinking heavy feeling at the pit of your stomach. This is due to the blood surging as it’s being moved around by adrenaline to the muscles. Your stomach is working overtime and if there’s food in the gut it is going to make you nauseous and want to vomit. If there’s no food in the gut you have an excess of hydraucloric acid because the system has been speeded up. This can cause gastric reflux, heartburn and other things. As the gut is speeded up and food is going through it, it hasn’t got time for the water to be taken out so the gut stays loose. This will cause some people to have diarrhoea or the feeling of wanting to go, what most of us would say is a nervous belly which you have no control of.

There is a heck of a lot going on already. If you don’t use the energy then it just gets worse. If you have no time to go to the toilet yet we are producing loads of waste products as part of the speed up of energy and motabalism. These waste products have got to come out somehow so we sweat it out, the ‘sweaty palm’ feeling. Uric acid and lactic acid from the muscles are excreted through sweat so don’t shake my hand after a panic attack!! The other reason for sweating is we are generating a lot of heat by this point. The core temperate generates heat which has to come out somewhere. Now we have a combination of cold and hot sweats with the perifery being cold but the core being hot, causing flushed skin. The breathing rate starts to increase because we can’t metabolise the nutrients without oxygen. We need oxygen in so our breathing increases and also does this to blow out waste products and heat. The breathing can increase so much that we start to induce a panic attack due to hyperventilation.

The thing that triggered all of this was the senses picking up a threat…All these have now become hyperalert just in case they miss something. You may find you are scanning more, noise becomes more acute you could hear a pin drop. The skin can become more sensitive to touch and taste buds could be heightened. Pupils dilate as the muscles work overtime but they can only do this for so long before muscles become fatigued. This could cause blurred vision which again increases the threat.

The thing that’s going to rescue you is your muscles because the outcome of a threat is to fight, flight or freeze. The muscles purpose is to move joints i.e the bicep contracts and the triceps contract to work opposite each other. Every joint in the body works off 2 muscles which tire under tension but this has to happen to prepare the muscles ready to spring into action. So if you put some tension on them but they don’t spring into action they stay tense. This interferes with the smooth movement of the joints making us clumsy, possibly the loss of dexterity and producing tremors. If you go to the gym and really push it, at the end of it you feel a bit wobbly and shaky etc. If you hold a brick outstretched you can only hold it for so long before your arm starts dropping, you lift it up a couple of times but eventually you will start to shake and cramp up thus dropping the brick. Your fitness will depend on how much tension your muscles can hack. If you come away from training with jelly legs this is a clue to putting your muscles under too much tension. A lot of the time this manifests in the shoulders and neck because muscles are fatigued. Our muscles are very vascular so when you put tension on the muscle it in turn puts pressure on the vessels thus slowing the blood supply.  So you have adrenaline glands speeding the blood system up and the muscles slowing it down so what happens is that it reduces the ability of pushing oxygen into the muscles. This causes the sensation of pins and needles and the rubbish coming out of muscles causes cramps. As an example some sufferers of anxiety make a fist but after some time this causes cramps in forearms. If you cross your legs after a while you will get pins and needles because your squashing the blood vessels.

So your digging the garden during which time your muscles are contracting and relaxing constantly. This acts as a secondary pump to your legs because the heart cannot pump very well down to your feet without moving your legs. After a days work your shattered but you’ve achieved something. With muscle tension you can hold contraction for an hour where normerly you wouldn’t be able to hold it (the brick consept). Subconsciously you can hold that contraction for longer which is going to have an affect on the body. So after an hour of being anxious you sit back, look around but you’ve achieved nothing; that’s the difference.  At the end of a day your shattered but you haven’t done anything. You have a spell of anxiety, your muscles are tense and working hard but producing nothing. The c-spine has to hold the weight of the head and the only thing stopping it flopping over is muscle at the back and sides but not at front of the neck. With muscle tension the head starts to pull back but subconsciously the head falls back to a normal state. This however results in pulling collateral muscles in the shoulders etc causing them to ache due to being pulled unnaturally thus causing neck problems. Another area is the lumber spine which has the torso to hold up. The stomach and back muscles stop it going floppy. Muscle tension causes aches aches and people with bad backs are often worse when tensed. Back sufferers may think they’ve done something to their backs but they haven’t,  it’s just tension. If muscles are contracted without exercising it’s going to cause fatigue.

All this is going on because you feel threatened by something. This mechanism is there to protect you from a threat so if your running or fighting a threat your using the energy but if you’re feeling threatened but not running or fighting then the threat cannot be real. It is a purly an automatic process. The trouble is not with the real threat mechanism because that will work for you, but with a perceived threat we need to find out where it’s coming from and what were going to do about it.

So that is what happens during an anxiety attack. This is such a physical process yet not acknowledged as such sadly. This needs to change, it’s REAL and it’s happening right now to someone you know.


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