Your Body’s Response to Anxiety

Outline of head with brain inside. Danger written across brain. Arrows show steps of anxiety response: brain perceives threat, brain alerts body, body reacts with physical and emotional symptoms.

Normal anxiety is part of the body’s natural defense system. It's an alert to a threat that is unknown, vague, or comes from your own internal fears. While you’re in this state, your feelings can range from a vague sense of worry to physical sensations such as a pounding heartbeat. These feelings make you want to react to the threat. An anxiety response is normal in many situations. But when you have an anxiety disorder, the same response can occur at the wrong times.

Anxiety can be helpful

Normal anxiety is a signal from your brain that warns you of a threat and is a normal response to help you prevent something or decrease the bad effects of something you can't control. For example, anxiety is a normal response to situations that might damage your body, separate you from a loved one, or lose your job. The symptoms of anxiety can be physical and mental.

How does it feel?

At certain times, people with anxiety may have:

  • Dizziness

  • Muscle tension or pain

  • Restlessness

  • Sleeplessness

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Racing heartbeat

  • Fast breathing

  • Shaking or trembling

  • Stomachache

  • Diarrhea

  • Loss of energy

  • Sweating

  • Cold, clammy hands

  • Chest pain

  • Dry mouth

Anxiety can also be a problem

Anxiety can become a problem when it is hard to control, occurs for months, and interferes with important parts of your life. With an anxiety disorder, your body has the response described above, but in inappropriate ways. The response a person has depends on the anxiety disorder he or she has. With some disorders, the anxiety is way out of proportion to the threat that triggers it. With others, anxiety may occur even when there isn’t a clear threat or trigger.

Who does it affect?

Some people are more prone to persistent anxiety than others. It tends to run in families, and it affects more younger people than older people, and more women than men. But no age, race, or gender is immune to anxiety problems.

Anxiety can be treated

The good news is that the anxiety that’s disrupting your life can be treated. Check with your healthcare provider and rule out any physical problems that may be causing the anxiety symptoms. If an anxiety disorder is diagnosed seek mental healthcare. This is an illness and it can respond to treatment. Most types of anxiety disorders will respond to "talk therapy" and medicines. Working with your doctor or other healthcare provider, you can develop skills to help you cope with anxiety. You can also gain the perspective you need to overcome your fears. Note: Good sources of support or guidance can be found at your local hospital, mental health clinic, or an employee assistance program.

How to cope with anxiety

If anxiety is wearing you down, here are some things you can do to cope:

  • Keep in mind that you can’t control everything about a situation. Change what you can and let the rest take its course.

  • Exercise—it’s a great way to relieve tension and help your body feel relaxed.

  • Avoid caffeine and nicotine, which can make anxiety symptoms worse.

  • Fight the temptation to turn to alcohol or unprescribed drugs for relief. They only make things worse in the long run.

  • Educate yourself about anxiety disorders. Keep track of helpful online resources and books you can use during stressful periods.

  • Try stress management techniques such as meditation.

  • Consider online or in-person support groups.