Understanding Anxiety and the Mind-Body Connection

Terry Yonker, RN, MS, FNP-BC

By Terry Yonker RN, MS, FNP-BC,  Telepsychiatry Clinical Care Coordinator,  Finger Lakes Community Health

Butterflies… Sweaty palms… Heightened senses…What do you these words describe? Anxiety of course!

Anxiety is a part of life.  As adults, we all face stress from money worries, health concerns, work deadlines, parenting challenges, and relationship issues.

Anxiety and worry have their place as useful emotions and are even critical to our survival. Short term, we benefit from the body’s response to stress by experiencing increased alertness, motivation, and caution in decision making. Our bodies become revved up to face life challenges including planning and moving toward goals and commitments.

However, when stress lasts a long time it may be harmful to our health. With chronic stress, the body stays in alert mode triggering various negative physical and emotional reactions.

Why? Because there is a mind-body connection.

The Body’s Reaction

The brain is the most complex organ of the body with more than 100 billion neurons. Neurons communicate using chemicals called neurotransmitters that travel via special pathways. One important structure in the brain that is tied to our emotions is the amygdala. Depending on what we perceive in our environment, feelings of anxiety and fear sound the alarm for the amygdala to act. It does so by sending information to other areas of the brain triggering responses of flight, fight, or freeze. The body responds by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and respirations. Oxygen, blood sugar, and other energy stores become more available, pupils dilate, and muscles tense in readiness preparation.

The amygdala also activates a special feedback loop which regulates the hormones produced in response to stress. This is helpful for the short term, but long term stress can cause the loop to never shut off.  This can harm body and/or mind systems.

Brain injury, long term stress, and traumatic memories can harm the structures and pathways. The good news is the brain can adapt and reverse damage done.  An overactive amygdala and worry loops can be helped by medications that regulate the brain chemicals. Likewise, counseling or psychotherapy can help heal and re-configure brain circuits.

Anxiety Disorders

We need to be aware of what differentiates “normal” anxiety from mental health disorders. One way to determine this is to evaluate whether anxiety affects every day function at school, work, home, or in social situations.

Anxiety disorders are very common and can affect one in four Americans. Examples of anxiety disorders are panic disorders, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Treatment for Anxiety Disorders

The first step in managing anxiety disorders is to have a medical provider do a complete physical. There are over forty medical problems that can contribute to feelings of anxiety. If medical causes are ruled out, primary care providers can usually manage anxiety disorders using safe and effective medications. Individual, group, and/or family therapy can also play a big role in the treatment of anxiety disorders.  Tele-psychiatry and tele-counseling done from the primary care office can increase access to specialists, therapists, and other professionals who can help. We offer this service at Finger Lakes Community Health.

Stress management

An overall wellness program that addresses sleep, nutrition, physical activity, and participating in fun activities is important. Yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises are examples of using the mind-body connection in favorable ways. Similarly, music, art, and pet companions can release “feel good chemicals” in the brain. We all know the benefits of calling to chat with a friend, taking a walk in the woods, or basking in nature’s sunshine.

Reasons to seek help include:

There is no reason to feel alone if worries or fears are difficult to control or are interfering with daily life. Help is available! Having feelings of panic such as dizziness, racing heartbeat, or trouble breathing need medical attention to determine if the cause is mind or body.  So, too, flashbacks of traumatic memories and/or feeling of overwhelming stress can be assessed and eased by seeking professional help.

 In summary…

Short term, the body’s response helps us cope and respond. Over the long term, stress can take its toll and some may develop signs of an anxiety disorder. Self-help and seeking professional help when needed can be valuable to healing minds and bodies alike.

We’re here to help everyone at Finger Lakes Community Health. Give us a call (315) 531-9102.

FL Times article 7.2.17