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Why your body changes when you feel anxious - and how you can cope more effectively

Posted on Wednesday, 24 February 2021, in Anxiety & Stress

Why your body changes when you feel anxious and how to cope


You've probably heard of the 'fight-or-flight' response. When we sense danger, our bodies respond with temporary changes that were originally designed to enhance our ability to either run away or stand and defend ourselves. This is fight-or-flight - your body's natural reaction to danger.

Suddenly your heart races, your breath quickens, and your muscles prepare for action. This temporary physical change helps you perform better under pressure in certain situations such as at work or school. In cases where the threat is life-threatening, the fight-or-flight response can play a vital role in your ability to survive.


Your fight or flight response is triggered by anxiety


The reaction begins in the part of your brain responsible for perceived fear, firing signals that stimulate the autonomic nervous system. When this happens, stress hormones are rapidly released, triggering a range of significant physical symptoms designed to temporarily adjust your body in preparation for a rapid physical response.


  • Racing heart - our hearts beat quicker and harder, increasing the circulation of blood supply to the brain, muscles and limbs.
  • Increased breathing – we breathe quicker to deliver more oxygen to our muscles.
  • Peripheral vision increases - our pupils dilate to let in more light, which helps us see better and take in our surroundings.
  • Body heats & sweats - we often produce more sweat to speed heat loss. We might get cold, look pale or have goosebumps.
  • Brain activity - Fight-or-flight makes us think less and react more instinctively.


This response was appropriate for early humans because of genuine threats of physical harm. Nowadays, life is less about escaping predators and more about complex and subtle concerns such as presentations, job interviews, exams, or social situations – everyday things that can trigger our internal threats in the form of worries and anxieties.


Persistent worries and anxiety cause great distress


Most of the time, this temporary change will only last 20 - 30 minutes before our bodies return to their natural states. But people with high anxiety have difficulty shaking their worries. Even thinking about a difficult situation can cause people with persistent worries great distress and disability. This can be very harmful in the long-term and could lead to an anxiety disorder.


The physical symptoms of an anxiety disorder can cause other serious symptoms, including:


  • Depression
  • Social isolation
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension
  • Insomnia


If you are experiencing an excessive or persistent state of anxiety, you should seek clinical advice. You can speak to us or to your GP. This could be a sign of something more serious and could have an extremely negative effect on your physical and mental health.

 How to control your bodys response to anxiety


How to control your body’s response to anxiety

Ongoing repeated stress and anxiety can take its toll on our bodies, but there are ways you can regulate how your body responds and prepare its readiness for action by using that energy in a healthy way.


Relax to control anxiety



If you spend lots of time with feelings of worry and negative thinking, relaxation techniques can help counteract these symptoms. Common relaxation techniques include yoga, visualisation, massage, and meditation, and are all skills you can learn at home.

Even simple things such as walking or cycling, gardening, reading, or listening to music can help you unwind. It's all about stepping away from the hustle and bustle to slow down your thoughts, let go of stress and open up to relaxation.

Just remember, relaxation is a skill and it may take time before your mind truly learns to switch off and feel the benefits.


Exercise to deal with anxiety



It's been proven to improve mental health by reducing anxiety and depression by improving self-esteem and cognitive function. But for many of us, regular exercise can be very hard to stick to - especially when you're struggling with your feelings.

If you're feeling overwhelmed by the thought of exercise, start small. Commit to just five minutes, see how it goes and build from there. The Body Coach on YouTube offers a range of routines that people of all ages, abilities and fitness levels can do at home.


Breathe to control anxiety



Practising calming, controlled or mindful breathing exercises can help calm the part of our brain responsible for creating stress, as our very own, Dr Jennifer Opoku explains: "breathing deeply and slowly can stop your mind wandering into the future and worrying about what will happen. It's about bringing the individual back to the here and now, and reminding them that everything's ok, they're not in danger, nothing is wrong.”

With no music, just gentle breath sounds, this simple breathing exercise can help you calm down and relax.


Do you have Anxiety?

Our online anxiety test offers an easy and anonymous way of finding out if your symptoms are the consequence of an anxiety disorder. The test should take about five minutes and could be the first step towards getting the help that’s right for you.

Take our anxiety test


Rae Britton

Rae Britton Content Editor BA Joint Hons, QTS

Rae oversees the creation of a range of content that offers insight, support and guidance on mental health issues. She is both passionate and ably qualified. She is a former primary school teacher, while she also has three children, two of whom have ADHD with one of those also diagnosed with Asperger’s. It means she can combine her expertise and direct experience to shape content that helps those in need to survive, thrive and excel.

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