What are the effects of fear on your body? Anxiety is not just that uncomfortable knot in the stomach with which you can resign yourself to living; maintained over time, it wears down your body physically and mentally. Become aware and act.
Ending preoccupation as a way of life and the profound need for serenity should be weighty incentives to seek a solution to that which limits us so much and distances us from happiness, but human beings are peculiar and, unless suffering becomes unbearable, sometimes we prefer to resign ourselves to living in an increasingly restricted area of uncomfortable comfort rather than venture out and seek a solution to our problem.
Anxiety is not just a psychological or emotional issue, fear involves and is expressed throughout the body: do you know what happens in your body when you experience anxiety? Read on.
Our organism is perfectly prepared to face specific situations that generate anxiety or stress. In fact, as I explained in my Free Course Techniques to Reduce Anxiety and Connect with your Serenity, anxiety is a response of the body itself to face what our mind interprets as a threat.
Unlike stress, which is activated in the face of a specific situation of the present that requires an extraordinary effort of concentration and activation on our part, anxiety is generally triggered as a reaction to a thought about a future threat.
That is to say, the danger does not yet exist and many times never comes into existence, but the body -which can only react in the present- automatically puts into operation a perfect mechanism that prepares us to fight, flee or freeze.
The anxious reaction is an extraordinary effort for the body and requires a very high energy consumption. Under normal conditions, once the threat passes the body recovers from overexertion and even comes out strengthened.
However, if the anxious reaction is not a response to a punctual juncture and becomes chronic, the organism will not find time for that deserved and necessary rest that regenerates it and will begin to wear out at greater speed.
How does your body react to fear?
The pupils dilate and attention is triggered to perceive everything with greater clarity; the brain sends a signal that prepares the body for action: the adrenal glands secrete adrenaline and cortisol – the stress hormone – which, in turn, triggers another series of reactions aimed at boosting the motor system: our muscles will be the ones that allow us to run away or win the battle.
- Breathing becomes fast and shallow, and the bronchi dilate, increasing the amount of oxygen entering the body.
- The heart begins to pump at a faster rate to distribute energy throughout the body quickly.
- Blood from the skin and other organs is directed to the organs directly involved in the action: muscles, lungs, and brain.
- The liver releases glucose into the bloodstream to feed the muscles.
- Veins and arteries contract to increase circulatory flow to the muscles.
- The body stops producing unnecessary liquids and releases those it has accumulated: urine, faeces, etc., to gain lightness and be able to run faster.
- The spleen releases white blood cells to deal with possible wounds that occur “in the fight” and red blood cells to carry more oxygen.
- Sweating increases to cool the whole system.
- The digestive system slows down: digesting is not a priority.
Now do you understand why your heart beats so fast, your head hurts, or hyperventilates when you have an anxiety attack? It’s your perfect machine getting ready to fight or run, and even if you think otherwise, nothing will happen to you – you’re ready for it.
The body prepares for action, but today’s threats (or what we interpret as such) rarely require such a reaction, and we remain composed for a physical effort that never occurs.
This extraordinary state of activation relaxes once the threat passes, but if we prolong it in time, even with less intensity, we are demanding our organism to lengthen its overexertion without giving it the chance to recover.
The effects on our body of prolonged anxiety
As a result of a continuous release of cortisol and adrenaline:
Your immune system is weakened
Faced with the possibility of foreign organisms entering our bodies through the wounds of the “struggle” for which the anxious reaction prepares us, the spleen defends us by releasing more white blood cells. In the long run this weakens our immune system, slowing down recoveries and making us more susceptible to infection.
Digestive discomfort appears
I don’t think I’m the only one whose gut is turned upside down by anxiety. The adrenaline alters the digestive system causing diarrhea, burning, swelling … etc.. Over time, this can lead to more serious and bothersome conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome or ulcers. Cortisol, on the other hand, will stimulate our appetite for sweets and hydrates in order to store energy, which can lead to weight gain.
The gastrointestinal system is diminished energy intake and produces fewer digestive enzymes which reduces the absorption of nutrients.
Increases blood sugar level
One of the main functions of cortisol is that the liver releases more glucose to feed the muscles. If this increase is prolonged, it can lead to insulin resistance and the development of type II diabetes.
Premature cellular aging
Both at the skin and organ levels. Overwork caused by an anxious reaction maintained over time translates into oxidation and, therefore, aging. It is as if we were taking the car always revolutionized.
Insomnia and exhaustion
The body regulates the production of cortisol so that our biorhythms adjust to the daily cycle. Under normal conditions the body produces higher levels of this hormone in the morning to help us wake up and activate, and lower levels at night, when what we need is rest to recover energy and our organs regenerate.
Prolonged anxiety and stress alter the production of cortisol, making it difficult for us to fall asleep and give our body its necessary rest dose.
Contracts and musculoskeletal problems
To be effective in the face of this supposed threat, our muscles are charged with energy, activating and tensing themselves for an effort that does not come. This unreleased tension can end up causing muscle contractures and wear. Back pain, bruxism and other discomforts are common.
If the skin -which also gives up its ration of blood and food in favour of other key organs in the defensive reaction- stops receiving its necessary dose of hydration, dermatological problems such as eczema, alopecia, rosacea and premature ageing, among others, may appear.
Hypertension and heart conditions
Sudden increases in blood pressure and constriction of the arteries, repeated disturbance of the heart rhythm, etc., can in the long run negatively affect the cardiovascular system or complicate conditions.
When the stress hormone remains in the body for a long time, it negatively affects certain areas of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex (involved in logical processing of information) and the hippocampus (closely related to memory).
Memory problems or difficulty concentrating and integrating learning are common among people who have experienced long-term anxiety.