It Isn’t All In Your Head

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His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready
To drop bombs, but he keeps on forgettin’
What he wrote down, the whole crowd goes so loud
He opens his mouth, but the words won’t come out

Yes, those are lyrics to Eminem’s song “Lose Yourself.” Yes, this song is a banger, but that’s not why I have it on the blog post. I think that these lyrics perfectly embody the physical symptoms associated with stress and anxiety.

When we talk about anxiety or stress, we may think of intrusive thoughts and constant worry. What we don’t realize is that anxiety and stress can have an impact not only on our thoughts or emotions, but also on our bodies. Anxiety and stress can manifest itself in many ways. What we should keep in mind is that not all anxiety and stress is bad for us. Actually, some stress and anxiety is good. It allows us to be alert and it can sometimes give us the motivation to complete tasks. The issue with stress and anxiety occurs when it is persistent and elevated. Below we will discuss the biological systems that are affected by stress and anxiety, as well as how to combat them.

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Biology of Stress and Anxiety

When we are stressed out or anxious, our body has a reaction. The effects of stress and anxiety can disrupt our Nervous System, Musculoskeletal System, Respiratory System, Cardiovascular System, Endocrine System, Gastrointestinal System, and Reproductive System. It pretty much affects your entire body. We will go through each of these systems and see how stress and anxiety directly relate to the function of these different systems.

Nervous System

The nervous system is where our ‘flight, fight, or freeze’ response lives. When our mind and body are under stress or anxiety, this shifts our body to resourcing our energy to combat the stress or anxiety. This then turns on the ‘flight, fight, or freeze’ response, also called the sympathetic nervous system. This system will cause our body to release adrenaline and cortisol. These two hormones will make our heart beat faster, raise blood pressure, and change digestive processes. All of these systems will go back to normal once the ‘crisis’ has passed.

Musculoskeletal System

The musculoskeletal system can also be affected by stress or anxiety. This system is made up of cartilage, bones, joints, tendons, and ligaments. All of these parts provide stability, support, and movement in our body. When we are stressed or anxious, this may cause our bodies to tense up. Our muscles contracting for long periods of time may cause headaches, migraines, teeth grinding, or muscle cramping/pain. These symptoms should pass after the stressor is gone, but having constant muscle tension could cause the pain to linger.

Respiratory System

The respiratory system is made up of the airways, the lungs, and the muscles of respiration. This system is what allows us to inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. When we are anxious or stressed out, our respiratory system may be disturbed. Stress and anxiety may make it harder to breathe. This then can cause us to hyperventilate or cause panic attacks. This could be a really scary experience because it feels like you aren’t able to get enough oxygen.

Cardiovascular System

The cardiovascular system consists of the heart and the circulatory system. This system pumps blood to the organs, tissues, and cells of your body. Stress or anxiety may cause an increase in heart rate and stronger contractions in the heart muscle. The blood vessels that direct the blood to the larger muscle groups and to the heart dilate, which increases the amount of blood pumped to these parts of the body. This also increases blood pressure. If you are chronically stressed or anxious, this could cause the cardiovascular system to be negatively affected. The effects may cause a higher risk of hypertension, heart attack, or stroke.

Endocrine System

The endocrine system is made up of glands that produce and secrete hormones. These hormones help regulate the body’s growth, metabolism, and sexual development. When our body is stressed, our nervous system may signal our endocrine system to release the ‘stress hormones.’ These hormones are cortisol and norepinephrine. When these hormones are released, this causes your liver to create more glucose. This glucose acts as energy to help you react during a flight, fight, or freeze response. High levels of cortisol and norepinephrine may cause too much blood sugar, high blood pressure, and a suppressed immune system.

Gastrointestinal System

The gastrointestinal system, also known as the digestive system, is made up of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and the rectum. Stress and anxiety can cause a lot of issues with your digestion. When we are stressed or anxious it may cause us to eat more or less. This could lead to heartburn or acid reflux. Stress and anxiety may also lead to a more sensitive stomach. You may have nausea or pain, and when the stress or anxiety is severe, it may even cause you to vomit. Constant anxiety or stress can lead to stomach ulcers as well. Stress and anxiety may also cause digestion issues. You may find yourself being constipated or having diarrhea when anxious or stressed.

Reproductive System

Lastly we have the reproductive system. The reproductive system is different for both men and women, but both can be affected by stress and anxiety. For men, constant stress or anxiety may cause a decline in testosterone production, sperm production, or maturation. Chronic stress and anxiety may cause impotence or erectile dysfunction. For women, stress and anxiety can affect their menstrual cycle, PMS symptoms, menopause, and sexual desire. Their menstrual cycle may become irregular or absent with high levels of anxiety or stress. With stress and anxiety, women may have a more difficult time coping with PMS symptoms. If women are going though menopause and are highly stressed or anxious, it may cause the physical symptoms of menopause to be worse. Finally, if women are too stressed or anxious, it may cause them to have a lesser desire for sex.

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Anxiety and Stress Reducing Tools

There are many ways that we can relax or destress. Self care is super important, but keep in mind that what may work for one person, may not work for another. Below are some tips and ideas of how to reduce anxiety and stress.

Activities

There are many different activities that we can do for self-care. An activity can be anything you want it to be.

  • Journal
    • Journaling can allow you to express what is stressing you out or causing you anxiety. You can free-write your journals and write whatever comes to mind, or you can find a journal prompt to get you started.
  • Exercise
    • Exercise is a great way to release any residual stress or anxiety you may be feeling. You can go on a jog, play a sport, go for a walk, or take a hike. There are many ways to exercise, so do whatever makes you feel good!
  • Mindfulness
    • Mindfulness is something that can be as quick as checking in with yourself to doing a meditation. Mindfulness is the idea of being fully present and aware. When being mindful we are not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what is going on around us. Tips on how to incorporate mindfulness into your daily lives can be found here.
  • Write Lists and Prioritize
    • Writing things down of what to do, and prioritizing your tasks may help resolve some stress or anxiety of getting things done. Seeing all of the things you may have to do on a piece of paper may clear some space mentally so that you are better able to focus on the task at hand.

Meditation

Meditation can be easily be incorporated in our day to day life. There are also different types of meditations that could suit your needs. Below are a few different types of meditations.

  • Guided Imagery
    • A guided imagery meditation is when a meditation may guide you through calm or relaxing images, such as a stream or waves crashing. You can check out this guided imagery meditation here.
  • Non-Guided
    • A non-guided meditation is exactly what it sounds. There is no one speaking during the meditation, but there may be background music or therapeutic sounds. Here is some background noise that you may listen to when doing a non-guided meditation.
  • Body-Scan
    • A body-scan meditation usually brings your attention to different parts of the body. It is a type of meditation that is guided, and usually asks you to bring attention to any areas that may be tense. Here is a 10-minute body-scan meditation.
  • Loving-Kindness
    • Loving-kindness meditations help develop compassion. The idea behind these meditations are to soften the mind and the heart. It is meant to come from a selfless place with no conditions. Here is a 13-minute loving-kindness meditation.

Apps/Websites

  • Headspace
    • This is an app that you can download on your phone or tablet. Here they teach you how to meditate, as well as ’emergency meditations’ for when you may be overwhelmed with stress or anxiety.
  • Calm
    • This is an app that you can download on your phone or tablet. They have many different meditations you can try. They also have a feature where you can do a ‘challenge’ where you try to consistently do a meditation each day.
  • UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center
    • This website has many different meditations that you may use for free. They can range from 5 minutes to 20 minutes.
  • Psychology Today
    • This is a great website to find a therapist that suits your needs. You can use the Therapist Finder and plug in your zip code, symptoms, and insurance to find a therapist the fits what you’re looking for.

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