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tan253's avatar

Biological effect of chronic anxiety on the body?

Asked by tan253 (2826points) April 18th, 2015

I’ve suffered from chronic anxiety now for 15 years.
Started as debilitating panic attacks and now it’s more hypochondria but a constant sense of unease.

I worry morning and night about a lot of unnecessary things. I’m too old for this I’m 39.

My Dr tells me the body stays in flight and fight mode even when I don’t necessarily have the adrenal effects of anxiety – hence now having IBS, GERD, gastritis and just a feeling of unease a lot of the time. I also get night time anxiety more than anything, waking up in a panic, brain zaps (no drugs) etc.

I am wondering about the biological, neurological implications and mechanics during chronic anxiety.
Does anxiety affect the parasympathetic or the sympathetic nervous system?

Is one needing to calm down or are both out of whack.
Is it about trying to stimulate or under stimulate my vagus?

I can’t just take drugs and that be that.
I’m wanting to understand what is actually happening in my body so I can then work at controlling my anxiety that way.

I believe through understanding the actual biological process re: what hormones are being released etc
I might actually be able to calm the ‘right’ parts of my body down and eventually get back to a normal state of homeostasis!

Does this make sense or is it all just a ridiculous notion?


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21 Answers

jerv's avatar

It’s not something that can be done on your own; the fact that you are even asking tells me that you don’t have the skills it takes to handle it yourself. And yes, you will need pharmaceutical assistance, at least for a while.

If you want a magic wand, there is none. If you want to wish it away, you can’t.

tan253's avatar

Hi thanks for responding. I don’t understand why you’re strongly opposed to the possibility that maybe you can control it. Mind over matter? Surely by understanding the mechanics of how something works you have more of a chance of being able to stimulate the right responses rather than the negative? Like NLP? I hear you – maybe because I’m curious at trying to do it naturally tells you that I can’t. But I must admit to never properly trying. I have a few friends on SSRI’s and now they can’t get off them.

janbb's avatar

I don’t know about the physiology of the effects of anxiety but it seems to me that a good meditation practice would be worth trying if you are looking to avoid meds.

Coloma's avatar

Anxiety is the same as stress, it is keeping you in a constant state of hyper-agitation and hyper-vigilence. Just like stress it can facilitate immune problems, heart disease, and many forms of cancer. Stress is a killer. I am also not a fan of SSRI’s but every individual is different in what may or may not work for them. Have you tried meditation and seeking some psychological and “spiritual” guidance?

jerv's avatar

“I don’t understand why you’re strongly opposed to the possibility that maybe you can control it.”

Because experience.

Mind over matter only works to an extent. Try not shivering when you’re cold, or not twitching when you can electrocuted though (I used to be an electrician; shocks were an occupational hazard) and you’ll find that it can only go so far. When my hands start to shake and the least little sound is deafening, no amount of happy thoughts helps.

That said, SSRIs are often not the answer either. Each of us has different biochemistry and can exhibit similar symptoms for different reasons. Personally, my experience with SSRIs was…well, let’s leave it at “bad”. However, there are some things that have worked in combination with therapy. Just as optimism isn’t a panacea, there is no cure-all pill either. You have to attack the problem on both the physical and emotional fronts or else it’ll just move around without getting any weaker.

Pandora's avatar

I don’t think it is advisable to be looking for information that may only fuel your anxiety. Have you ever tried or given any thought to yoga. It may help in giving you the tools you need to control your anxiety. All you need to know is that anxiety is not a way to live and prevents you from enjoying life. Drugs can also help I am sure but I do believe anyone can learn different ways to cope that won’t always mean the uses of pharmaceuticals.
Living a clean life, no smoking or drinking, eating well with fruits and vegetables, drinking plenty of water and sleeping well may also help you out. If you do the opposite you only fuel your bodies anxiety. Exercise will also help.

tan253's avatar

i think my anxiety is so deep rooted that it’s hard to get to the real core of it to ‘shake’ it out.
All your advice is good though.
I eat healthy, exercise but don’t do anything in term of meditation or yoga… i think maybe that. I just feel that if i knew more of the actual physicality of anxiety in regards to internal (?) that it may help.

Also it’s the OCD thought pattern that really gets me.
The constant thinking of bad thoughts, I feel as though I’m letting my future self down.

My issue is is that i know it can fuel many dangerous reactions within the body and it’ those I desperately want to avoid.

hominid's avatar

I think you have some great insight into your anxiety. You talk about the OCD nature of it and the “constant thinking of bad thoughts”, etc. This is a great start. Like @janbb, I would recommend a mindfulness-based meditation practice. A practice of this type should be able to give you some tools that will address this from a couple directions.

Anxiety has a short shelf-life. It needs to be refreshed constantly by repetitive thoughts. This rumination is the fuel anxiety needs to make it feel like a constant, solid thing. It’s possible through practices such as meditation to see the anxiety fade away and watch your mind try to kick it back up again with an unhelpful thought. And just witnessing this can provide some relief. Eventually, you’ll be able to witness the beginnings of these thoughts so you can have some choice over whether or not you want to jump aboard and go for the ride. You may choose to pass. And when you do, you’ll likely find that the anxiety will too.

And as non-intuitive as this sounds, the practice will involve looking closer at your anxiety rather than pushing it away. It doesn’t mean trying to find reasons to be anxious. Rather, it means being completely interested into its nature and how your body responds. It’s becoming intensely aware of what your mind does. It (and each one of our minds) does what the mind does. And understanding the mechanisms that birth and nurture your anxiety will take all of the mystery and power away.

One note on meds – I understand the desire to not do them. But many people find that multiple approaches simultaneously can be helpful (medication, therapy, exercise, and meditation). Some SSRIs work well for helping to treat some of the OCD and anxiety. Even if they help just slightly, it can be enough to help all of the other efforts. And once you have really made some progress and are feeling better, you’ll know when it’s time to drop the meds. Just a thought.

Anyway, anxiety is terrifying and feels permanent. But it’s possible to take much of the anxiety out of anxiety and leave it behind. It’s not permanent.

tan253's avatar

Thank you for your response. Very helpful – looks like meditation might a go.

Lawn's avatar

Excellent questions. I wish I knew the answer.

Here is an example of men that learned to control their physiological response to extreme cold. Within four days, they were able to submerge themselves in ice water without shaking.

David Blaine is another fascinating case study. Here he explains how he learned to lower his resting heartrate under duress through exposure training. In his case, there is clearly both a physical and cognitive component to his training. Just listening to him talk will lower your heart rate.

OCD is different than obsessive personality disorder. If you’re not performing compulsions as a response to an obsession (obsession about germ contamination and washing hands compulsively, for example), then you probably don’t have OCD.

You may want to research 5-HPT as an alternative to SSRIs.

Lawn's avatar

Self directed neuroplasticity.

“Neurons that fire together wire together.” It’s all about where you choose to focus your attention.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

I can’t answer your questions, but I just wanted to chime in and say that I agree that meditations are an excellent idea. I suggest starting with guided meditations, because often times, people that are new to meditating get anxiety about it because they feel like they’re doing it wrong. When you do a guided meditation, then entire process is explained to you, which takes a lot of the “am I doing this right?!” thoughts out of the equation.

When a friend pushed me to try meditation, these are what he sent me, and I like all of them. After that, I branched out and tried this meditation which is centered around healing – which was unexpectedly intense and emotional, but worth it. If you like the healing one, I suggest any other guided meditations by the same people, and they go by “TheHonestGuys” on YouTube.

Good luck.

tan253's avatar

Awesome thank you – has anyone had any experience with TM?

tan253's avatar

That link on neuroplasticity is amazing!

dabbler's avatar

If nothing else, disrupting your sleep is not good for you.

Add another vote for meditation practices,

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

@tan253 Go see a therapist. Take your time and find a good one. CBT with psychoanalysis is a time tested approach if your anxiety is not caused by something physical such as thyroid or substance abuse. Also get a full workup by your doc to rule these things out. Meds are not always an excellent idea, they can make you feel better but do nothing to address the root of the problem. They can make you feel much worse in some cases and most are addictive to varying degrees.

JLeslie's avatar

There is research showing that stress likely does make our lives shorter. One area of research is talomeres, which are found in the blood. It’s believed the length and quality of our telomeres indicates life expectancy and susceptibility to disease. During times of ongoing, high, stress, studies show the telomeres shorten and fray.

Other studies are showing that heart attacks often occur after an acute stressful episode. One study asked patients who had just had a heart attack if they could recall what happened within the last 24 hours and many had been through a stressful event, although it wasn’t the majority. I can’t find the study, I wish I could to know for myself again what the percentage was.

You could do some biofeedback sessions and see if the stress is affecting your pulse, blood pressure, and whatever else they measure. Then you can also see how changing your thoughts can affect you physiologically and learn what you can do that actually calms down your body to a healthier state.

tan253's avatar

Really? Wow biofeedback sounds great – will research it, stress is definitely affecting my bowels!!

tan253's avatar

I’ve just booked a bio feedback session!!!

JLeslie's avatar

Let us know how it goes.

Regarding your IBS, have you connected it to any foods? Dairy products?

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