When anxiety hits, we don’t have to tell our hearts to start racing or our pupils to dilate; chemical signals in our brains do all of that for us. Our “fight or flight” response might kick into gear seemingly on its own, and make us want to run away or fight the enemy — but it takes a lot to trigger so much physical change. Anxiety isn't the same as responding to a physical threat, though. Yet for some, it may have a similar or even stronger response.
People with anxiety disorders tend to have more exaggerated physical responses, with some sufferers experiencing serious symptoms in response to their feelings of anxiety.
Experts recently set out to connect the dots. Here’s what they found.
Anxiety is a normal part of being human. Especially in highly stressful situations or during profound life changes, most of us experience anxiety at some point. And we often respond as much physically as we do emotionally.
But in disordered anxiety, the physical effects can become severe enough for some to become objectively sick. Fatigue, gastrointestinal problems, headaches and numerous other symptoms can affect the quality of life and lead some to face (possibly incorrect) medical diagnoses. They often also experience more pronounced emotional effects to stressful events, and some researchers believe there could be a connection.
In a report recently published in Cell, experts explain that specific systems in the brain appear to become overactive in some cases of anxiety. In particular, an area in the amygdala called the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST) might be responsible for some extreme physical responses.
Researchers were able to demonstrate the relationship by altering gene expression in the BNST region in mice. The more active that area of the brain was, the more physically responsive the mice were to stressful stimuli. Manipulating that same region to reduce responsiveness resulted in less pronounced physical reactions. Researchers believe these findings could lead to new anxiety treatment avenues, such as prescription medications designed to help relax that region of the brain.
Anxiety is a physical problem, even if some of the symptoms may appear emotional. And soon, those of us who experience disruptive systemic issues caused by chronic anxiety could see relief through new, possibly more effective treatment avenues. Further advances in our understanding of mind-body connections are likely to expand with these latest findings.
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