The nervous system and anxiety go hand in hand. Anxiety can take its toll on your body, affecting both your physical and mental well-being. Your nervous system is responsible for sending signals throughout the body to regulate vital processes. Processes such as breathing, moods, memory, and even blood pressure.
Anxiety is a normal and healthy emotion. But, when it becomes overwhelming and interferes with daily life, it can be a serious problem.
Recently, I’ve struggled with severe anxiety, which sometimes leads to panic attacks. My heart is pounding, and it feels like I can’t breathe. It scares me. Sometimes when I go to bed at night I hear my heart pounding in my ears and it keeps me up.
That’s how it manifests for me.
Anxiety is a feeling that can range from a sense of unease to paralyzing fear. It’s the body’s response to stress and can be both beneficial and detrimental. On the one hand, it can alert us to potential danger or motivate us to change our lives. On the other hand, when it becomes excessive, it can lead to physical and psychological symptoms.
Things like headaches, fatigue, poor concentration, restlessness, irritability, panic attacks, and difficulty sleeping to name just a few. In its most serious state, anxiety can become so intense that it disrupts our daily activities. And, in some cases, it can cause us to avoid situations we would generally want or need to participate in.
The nervous system plays a vital role in how we experience, manage, and regulate anxiety.
The nervous system plays a vital role in how we experience, manage, and regulate anxiety. Therefore, to understand the impact of stress on our nervous system, it’s essential to first look at the structure and function of the nervous system.
The human nervous system, comprised of billions of cells called neurons work together to control all aspects of our behaviour. Everything from our thoughts and emotions, to our physical movements. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that send signals between neurons and allow us to think, remember, feel emotions, and plan actions. An imbalance in these neurotransmitters — due to stress hormones like cortisol or other factors — can lead to anxiety symptoms such as fearfulness or worry.
When we experience high levels of anxiety, the body’s fight-or-flight response kicks in. This triggers further release of stress hormones like adrenaline. This process causes physiological changes such as increased heart rate and sweating which prepares us for intense physical activity. Our body should return to baseline shortly thereafter. But, on the flip side, sometimes it doesn’t return to baseline as easily. This can lead to chronic stress due to the constant activation of nerve pathways carrying anxious thoughts from one part of the brain to another. It can feel like an endless loop.
The nervous system and anxiety.
To reduce anxiety, it is important to understand how our nervous system works and how a few lifestyle choices can help regulate the body’s stress response mechanisms. These “lifestyle choices” are by no means a comprehensive list or even the best options for you personally. These are what I’ve found works for me when I’m working with the nervous system and anxiety.
Regular exercise has been proven effective in promoting relaxation by increasing endorphin levels—chemicals produced by the central nervous system. These chemicals are responsible for feelings of pleasure or happiness. They also assists in calming sympathetic nerves responsible for activating the body’s fight-or-flight response when faced with danger or stressful situations. Movement and exercise is about so much more than weight loss or changing the appearance of your body. Movement literally makes us feel good.
Additionally, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been suggested as an effective means of managing thoughts related to anxiousness. CBT is a form of psychotherapy used to identify and modify the negative thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes. With CBT, one can learn how to recognize anxious thought patterns and replace them with healthier ones.
Mindfulness meditation helps reduce stress levels.
Mindfulness meditation helps reduce stress levels overall by focusing on controlling bodily sensations instead of worrying about potential outcomes. Additionally, relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation have been found effective to release anxiety.
I’ve also linked to a previous blog article I wrote titled Stress Management 101 – The What, Why & How.
By exploring these options, we can better understand how our physiological responses affect emotional states. Becoming more aware of the nervous system and anxiety and how the knowledge enables us to manage the symptoms associated with this mental state effectively.