What is Anxiety? and what purpose does it serve in our body as well as our minds? How and where does it occur?

3D Illustration Concept of Central Organ of Human Nervous System Brain Anatomy

Anxiety is a protective process. It allows us to experience protection from what is unsafe to our well-being, such as, intense heat or cold. In pitch darkness it warns us to not put one foot in front of the other as we can’t see where we’re going. It gives us a feeling of disorientation; its too risky. It stems from one of two areas, the mid brain area (limbic/sympathetic area and the nervous system – sympathetic area). It’s an early warning system which detects anything that may be of threat to our survival. This can range from something small to something extremely threatening.

The scale of the threat, however, can’t always distinguished by the Brain. It often depends on what we can see, hear, sense, or feel. Sometimes anxiety is triggered by something in the present that is perceived to be a threat from past experience, which is similar. This is due to the fact that the older more primitive area of the brain, does not have any concept of time and play out past memories of potential threat from the past as if it were happening right here and now.

The front of the brain (cortex) can be pictured like the top part of an iceberg. This is responsible for what you’re doing, planning, thinking about, choosing, contemplating. Your everyday thoughts and behaviours. What remains of the iceberg beneath the water’s surface are the different functions for your physical being and automated learnt actions. This includes patterns of behaviour which stem from earlier belief systems, within the older area of the brain.

The brain interprets a potential threat that requires further action. It is sent via the brain stem whose job it is to alert the physical body and prepare the body for defence or action, within the nervous system as depicted in the photo. This occurs via the inflamed sympathetic system / heightened arousal (flight/fight).

A further explanation of fight/flight is the relationship that occurs between the physical body and brain. A dynamic at an unconscious awareness level occurs, and this is known as Neuroception. In other words, we’re unaware that anything is happening until we feel the physical symptoms. Our bodies carry automatic radar (An inflamed Sympathetic system) alerting us with its anxious feelings.

What occurs in the body to alert it to any kind of threat?

When the brain stem becomes involved with a potential threat it alerts the body by triggering the hormone cortisol and boosting the secretion of the adrenaline glands. The impact of this causes a larger flow of blood to the arms and legs in preparation for what we know as fight or flight. This can occur in various stages and fluctuate (Co-regulation). The result of these changes can cause us to start to breathe from higher up in the stomach and limiting the amount of oxygen to the visceral area off the body – our torso. Our heart rate can increase, our throat and mouth feel dry and sometimes our hands and other areas of our bodies feel sweaty.

The term for this is an inflamed Sympathetic system. The good news is that we have a Para-sympathetic system to balance the body again, once the threat has diminished.