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What is anxiety, and how does it work in our body?

Our bodies are amazing things that contain internal mechanisms to keep us safe, alive, and well. One of these mechanisms is anxiety, and another is stress, both of which are caused by hormonal and chemical responses from the brain. Our innate reaction to stress or fear causes our brain to choose one of two options – fight or flight. Most people have heard about the fight or flight response, which comes from evolutionary developments in the body. Thousands of years ago, when human beings were living near larger animals (and at the low end of the food chain), the brain had to figure out a way to help us survive in a dangerous situation. Do we stay and fight, risking being hurt or killed, or run and hide? This became known as fight or flight, where our brains were able to make the wiser choice for us. However, making one choice or the other required some extra work from the body, including a rush of adrenaline, increased breathing, heightened circulation, and slowing of the digestive system to conserve energy.

Reduced Stress for Some, Long-Term Anxiety for Others

Over time, these necessary survival responses became less necessary, because we didn’t have to run away from predators or fight for our food and lives. But just because we had evolved and ascended the food chain, our body never lost this primitive response to fear or stress; so we kept the fight or flight response. For most people, anxiety is short-lived and can be beneficial so they can get things done if they’re under pressure. Once the task is completed, their anxiety decreases, and they go on about their day. For others, anxiety and stress have developed into long-term responses to everyday life, and these stress responses can manifest in many forms, and come on quickly with no noticeable stressors present. Those suffering from generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorders know this all too well; no matter what they do they can’t seem to lower their stress levels.

What does stress influence?

  • How well a person will react to a changing environment
  • How healthy a person is (if they get sick often)
  • How someone sleeps
  • How well a person can concentrate
  • The decisions a person makes
  • How motivated a person is
  • The outcome of a person’s life experiences

In addition to all the functional and psychological effects of anxiety listed above, stress can negatively affect processes in the body we cannot directly see. We talked about the good things stress does for our bodies when we cannot think fast enough – it offers us the choice to leave, or stay and see things through. But what’s meant to only linger in our system for short bursts can damage the body if it remains there for long periods of time. Stress releases something called cortisol into our system, affecting everything from the health of our cells to joint deterioration, memory loss and heart trouble – basically, stress kills cells and causes premature aging. Your body is essentially in constant alert mode as epinephrine rushes through your system, causing these overwhelming feelings of fear or anxiety to overcome you and drown out your ability to reason and calmly make decisions.

Stress and Anxiety Affects Addiction

Overwhelming stress and anxiety can cause a need for substances like alcohol, heroin, cocaine, or anything that will lessen this feeling of stress, so we self-medicate and end up with addiction. The addictive substance will reward us with immediate comfort, but there is a downfall to these things – they don’t last. When our brain begins producing stress hormones for extended periods of time, we get into a cyclical relationship with addictive substances by thinking that we need them to avoid the feelings, but they can actually cause anxiety to spike. Anxiety and addiction need to be treated separately to break this cycle, since the body is taking on too much from the added chemical imbalance in the brain and the serious health problems that come from the addiction.

How do we treat anxiety and addiction?

At Enlightened Solutions, after a complete detox and dual diagnosis by a professional, we break apart each compartmentalized diagnosed condition. When our clients come in for substance abuse, there may be other co-occurring disorders that we need to pay attention to and treat in experiential therapies. We think about the effects of the addiction on the mind and body, as well as the physical and emotional effects of anxiety once the substance is removed from the body. Anxiety causes noticeable changes in body chemistry so that we can respond to high levels of stress – meaning our blood pressure skyrockets, breathing is quickened, and our body feels antsy and overwhelmed with pent-up energy caused by increased epinephrine throughout our system.

To combat anxiety, we need to reverse the physiological feelings in the body. We focus on mindfulness exercises and meditation to reduce these stresses and calm the mind; an addictive mind paired with an anxiety disorder always feels there is something to worry over or stress about. We have to train the body to reserve this strength, so we work on breathing exercises. The more we train the brain to understand there is no immediate danger by creating a safe space and practicing these exercises, the less likely you are to experience adverse effects from stress. If we change the way we respond to stress, then we can be more in control of our bodies and stop focusing on the things in our lives that hurt us. Instead, we can understand where these feelings come from and how to achieve real happiness from our natural experiences, not from the false comfort offered by addictive substances.

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