This Is What Happens to Body When Feel Anxious

Hallie Gould


Hallie Gould

Hallie has worked in beauty editorial for eight years and has been a senior editor at Byrdie since 2016.

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Hallie Gould

Updated 01/07/20

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We all know what it’s like to wake up feeling anxious—those Sunday mornings when you’re worried about work, what you said to a friend the night before, or that regrettable text you just had to send at 3 a.m. (and the receiver has yet to respond). But no matter how familiar those feelings are, it’s less clear what is actually going on in our bodies when it happens. What sadistic chemicals are running through our brains, reminding us of that one thing we said seven years ago for the rest of eternity? Well, we found out.

Below, two experts detail exactly what happens to us when we feel anxious—both the tangible, fear-based kind and the worrisome gnawing we feel on those Sunday mornings. Keep scrolling for their insights.

Your brain releases a stress response

“Anxiety is what we feel when the amygdala, a small structure in the brain that is shaped like an almond, senses a threat. It kicks off a stress response that begins in the hypothalamus, leads to the pituitary gland, and ultimately sends a message to the adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline into our blood to ready our entire body for action,” explains Max Lugavere, a brain health expert and author of Genius Foods (to be released in 2018).

Meet the Expert

Max Lugavere is a health and science journalist and the author of New York Times best-selling book Genius Foods: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life. Lugavere appears regularly on the Dr. Oz Show, the Rachael Ray Show, and The Doctors. He has contributed to Medscape, Vice, Fast Company, CNN, and the Daily Beast.

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The parts of your brain that store trauma and fear kick off a “fight or flight” reaction

“These parts of the brain store memories of past traumas and fears and also help to encode experiences into memories,” adds Scott Dehorty, LCSW-C, executive director at Maryland House Detox, Delphi Behavioral Health Group. “Most animals have anxiety about persistent physical threats,” Lugavere continues, “which is important to prepare the body for this ‘fight or flight’ response, but humans can also feel anxiety in response to threats that are less tangible, like a bad day at work, which threatens our ego or our livelihood.” Dehorty says, “By doing so, we become more focused on the stressor and our senses become more sensitive.”

Meet the Expert

Scott Dehorty, LCSW-C, is a clinical social worker and therapist who specializes in chronic pain disorders, as well as addiction and and other mental health disorders. He utilizes a cognitive behavioral approach and draws largely from mindfulness-based practices.

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It can actually make you more productive

“Any perceived threat, conscious or otherwise, can make us anxious,” says Lugavere. “Whether the threat is to our professional or romantic stature or picked up by the brain via jarring stimuli—traffic noise for example—we respond physiologically like a zebra who has spotted a hungry lion in its periphery. Occasional anxiety under stressful conditions (public speaking, for example) is absolutely normal, and research suggests mild anxiety may even improve performance in those circumstances.” (We become more perceptive, will be faster, and our reflex time will improve.) “But when it is sustained, it can lead to major health problems.”

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Your diet can affect your anxiety

“Diet can impact one’s anxiety levels. Eating a plant-rich diet along with properly raised animal foods may reduce anxiety, whereas eating a diet high in sugar and processed foods may promote anxiety,” says Lugavere.

Researchers found eating the equivalent of one average-size dark chocolate candy bar each day for two weeks reduced the stress hormone cortisol as well as catecholamines (our “fight or flight” hormone) in highly stressed people.

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But you can work to let your body know you’re okay

“Meditation is very helpful in terms of reducing anxiety as an exercise which actually helps make the brain more resilient against future perceptions of threat. Being mindful of your personal triggers as well as those that make us all anxious can be empowering. For example, news media specifically front-loads broadcasts with anxiety-inducing leads. Reducing your consumption of news is, therefore, one potential way of reducing anxiety,” says Lugavere.

“All of this stresses our system, and the brain and body should return to normal levels once the stressor is over, but if the stressor is constant, you’ll find yourself in a heightened state all of the time. But it is rare our lives are on the line on a daily basis. The flight-or-fight response is not needed most of the time—we need to let our brains know that. If you take long, deep breaths, you are setting up a different feedback loop stating, Everything is okay,” suggests Dehorty.

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