Anxiety and the body

Have you ever wondered what anxiety actually is and what purpose it serves? Anxiety is the body's natural response to stress - most notably the stress of uncertainty of what is to come. This uncertainty is perceived as a threat triggering a physiological stress response. Our hearts beat faster, our breathing changes and our muscles tense up as adrenaline and cortisol are introduced into our bloodstream to maximise our odds of escape from this perceived threat.


This response is perfectly normal and one which we all experience to some degree every day of our lives. A presentation at work, an exam at school, meeting someone new, waiting for news on a loved one who is in the hospital. In most cases these stresses are momentary; ie. they are there in the moment only and when the perceived threat passes, so too does the feeling of anxiety

On occasion, we experience something more life-threatening. Imagine you're crossing the road and misjudge the speed of the oncoming car and there is a near miss. The stress response drives us to action to get us out of the way fast. Adrenaline is pumped into the body, oxygen and blood supply is rushed to the fast-twitch muscle fibres so that we can respond as fast as possible and get to safety.

The part of the brain responsible for logic and reason is turned down or off to give control of the body to part of the brain that is responsible for the instinctual desire to survive. There is no need to think about whether or not you need to get out of the way, you just do it. Once you're on the other side of the road your body has to come down from high alert but it may take a few seconds or a few minutes. You may feel full of nervous energy, your heart may still be thumping, your breathing heavy and you may even feel a tingling in your limbs. For many of us, this feeling diminishes as the brain realises that the threat has passed, and it starts to regulate us back into balance. 

What happens if the body gets stuck in this state?

If you are someone who suffers from acute anxiety, the body goes into a state of high alert but remains in this state for a prolonged period of time even when the perceived threat has passed. The part of the brain responsible for logic and reason has been turned off in favour of expending all your energy on survival. If that part of the brain is not accessible to you, then that means that understanding why you feel anxious or panicky is not available to you either. It's simply not a priority for your brain at that moment.   

This sense of feeling out of control on top of the uncomfortable physical sensations creates a feedback loop that feeds the anxiety and it can be a terrifying experience.

So what do we do about it?  

Understanding. At the time of high anxiety or a panic attack, you're physiologically unable to think your way out of it. Some people, therefore, find it really helpful to learn about the mechanics of what their bodies are doing and why they're responding as they are so that when it does happen and they can't access that part of their brain, they can access their memories and recall what they've learned about the body's stress response.   

The more you are able to manage the panic attacks and anxiety the less time you spend in that state. If you dig a little deeper with the help of a counsellor you can start to identify the triggers of your anxiety attacks. The more you are able to process your triggers and past experiences, the more likely you are to be able to respond appropriately to stressors. 

Breathing is a natural regulator. You may often hear people telling you to take a deep breath.  At the time you might think, "Stop telling me to breathe!" but breathing deeply has a physiological effect. It helps to convince the instinctual part of your brain that you are not in danger anymore.

If you're running out of the road to avoid being hit by a car you're unlikely to take a deep, relaxing breath while doing so. Your brain knows this and so by breathing deeply, you're telling it that there is no threat and that it can stand down from alert. This in turn triggers the logic and reason part of the brain to start to take back control of the body's systems. 

Distraction works much the same way as breathing does. If you can show your brain that you are not in danger, it helps to regulate it. There are some great grounding exercises that can be done, such as 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.   

Where you're standing or sitting notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. If you have the time to do that, then you're clearly not running from danger. 

Man looking around him

Movement can be a great way to get rid of energy. In my example of dodging a car while crossing the road, I mentioned that someone might feel a lot of nervous energy when they get to the other side and realise what just happened or what may have happened in a worst-case scenario. The energy produced by the stress response has to go somewhere.   

The next time you watch a David Attenborough wildlife documentary have a close look at the antelope for example. They're munching away at the grass when they think they hear something; an approaching predator. They become very still and alert. After a few seconds, they turn back to eating the grass. If you watch their backs you'll see them have a quick shake.   

The next time you take your dog to the vet, watch to see what they do when they come out of the vet rooms. Watch a scare prank video on YouTube and note the different responses people have to being frightened. Some jump up and down, some scream and some become angry and lash out. This is the energy release.  

In all cases, the stress response has been activated and when the perceived threat has passed, that excess adrenaline needs to go somewhere. When you feel that excess energy and you want to regulate yourself you can do a similar thing. You can literally shake it off, jump up and down, scream into a pillow or run up and down the stairs a few times.

There are cases where people are unable to release this trauma-induced energy at the time of the stress response. Car crash victims who are trapped, sexual abuse or rape victims, domestic violence survivors etc. may have needed to suppress their natural response in order to survive at that moment, unable to process the emotional impact of their experience as, or just after it happened.   

These experiences may have happened decades ago and the energy from that time is still trapped in the body, still demanding to be processed and released. Counselling and in particular counsellors who work somatically (with the body) can be of great benefit in helping to regulate the body now because it was not able to be regulated at the time of the trauma.   

If you want to read more about this I can recommend "The Body Keeps the Score" by Bessel van de Kolk or Peter Levine's "Waking the Tiger." If you want to learn how this energy can manifest in physical illness throughout your life then read "When the Body Says No" by Gabor Mate. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Trowbridge, Wiltshire, BA14
Written by Greg James, MA, Trauma Specialist.Somatic Experiencing and Psychotherapy
Trowbridge, Wiltshire, BA14

Greg has a desire to see people set free from the patterns of the past. Trained integratively, Greg is able to tailor his approach to the individual needs of clients and strongly believes that the lived experience of his clients has a profound effect on their lives. He works out of offices in Chippenham.

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