Ioana Dulcu - Anxiety and Stress Online Therapy

Anxiety Explained: Effects on Body & Brain, Types of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety is a common experience for everyone, as its primary role is to keep us safe, but for some, it can become problematic and debilitating if left untreated. Anxiety disorders are more than just a feeling of worry or fear; they involve a complex interplay between emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations.

This article explores how anxiety feels in the body and the science behind it. We’ll discuss the different types of anxiety disorders and suggest treatment options such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), hypnotherapy, and mindfulness.

Here’s what you’ll learn from reading this article:

  • What Are the Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
  • What Happens in the Brain during Anxiety
  • Different Types of Anxiety Disorders
  • Effective Treatment Options for Anxiety: CBT, ACT, Hypnotherapy and Mindfulness


What Are the Physical Symptoms of Anxiety?

Anxiety symptoms can vary depending on the type and severity of the disorder. However, physical symptoms include:

  • Rapid heartbeat or palpitations;
  • Shortness of breath or feeling like you can’t catch your breath;
  • Chest pain or discomfort;
  • Muscle tension, stiffness or soreness;
  • Trembling, shaking, sweating;
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation, and stomach pain;
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness;
  • Headaches or migraines;
  • Fatigue or exhaustion;
  • Insomnia or difficulty sleeping;
  • Sensitivity to sound or light;
  • Skin problems like hives, rashes, itchiness, and even hair loss;
  • Dry mouth or difficulty swallowing;
  • Feeling like you have a lump in your throat;
  • Changes in appetite or weight;

Other common symptoms of anxiety are:

  • Difficulty concentrating and memory problems;
  • Panic attacks;
  • Avoidance behaviours, perfectionism, multi-tasking;
  • Feeling detached or disconnected from reality or that things around are not real.
  • Restlessness or feeling on edge;
  • Irritability or mood swings;

What Happens in the Brain During Anxiety

Anxiety is a complex emotion that involves both psychological and physiological responses. When a person experiences anxiety, their body responds with a “fight or flight” reaction, a primitive survival mechanism that helped our ancestors avoid danger. This reaction is triggered by the sympathetic nervous system, which prepares the body to react to a perceived threat.

The sympathetic nervous system activates the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol, which are hormones that prepare the body for physical action. These hormones increase heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, which can cause physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, and nausea.

In addition to these physical responses, anxiety can impact the brain’s neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that allow communication between nerve cells in the brain. Anxiety can affect the levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which are involved in regulating mood and emotions.

Furthermore, anxiety also affects the brain’s neural circuitry. The amygdala, which is a small almond-shaped structure in the brain, plays a key role in processing emotions such as fear and anxiety. When the amygdala senses a potential threat, it sends signals to other parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, involved in decision-making and planning.

In individuals with anxiety disorders, the amygdala may become overactive and trigger a response even in situations that are not actually threatening. This can lead to chronic anxiety and difficulty managing everyday tasks and activities.

Chronic stress and anxiety can lead to structural changes in both the amygdala and hippocampus, which can further perpetuate the cycle of anxiety. For example, chronic stress can lead to a reduction in the size of the hippocampus, making it more difficult to regulate emotions and form new memories.


Different Types of Anxiety Disorders: understanding phobias, social anxiety, PTSD, OCD, general anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder and health anxiety

Phobias, such as agoraphobia and social phobia, are common anxiety disorders that can severely impact one’s quality of life. Agoraphobia, in particular, is a condition in which individuals are terrified of situations where help might not be available in the event of panic or escape might be difficult or embarrassing.

Specific phobias are characterised by an intense and irrational fear of a particular object or animal or situation, such as fear of needles, fear of spiders, fear of snakes, fear of heights, or fear of flying.

Social phobia, also known as social anxiety, is the most common anxiety disorder. It is defined as a marked and persistent fear of social or performance situations because of potential embarrassment and fear of being judged and negatively evaluated. It can be accompanied by panic attacks and anticipatory anxiety, leading to severe impairment in performance and creating a vicious cycle of negative anticipation and performance. People with social anxiety disorder may avoid social situations altogether or endure them with great difficulty.

PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and is a severe type of anxiety disorder that can develop after a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic, life-threatening, or severely distressing event, such as a natural disaster, combat, accident, or physical or sexual abuse. People with PTSD may experience flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance of reminders of the event, negative changes in mood and thinking, hyper vigilance, difficulty sleeping or concentrating and intense emotional reactions such as anger, guilt, and shame.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a complex condition that refers to recurrent thoughts (obsessions) or repetitive behaviours (compulsions), or even both that are performed in an attempt to alleviate the anxiety caused by the obsessions. People with OCD may spend hours a day performing these rituals, which can interfere with their daily lives. Various forms of OCD include contamination, checking, intrusive thoughts, or hoarding.

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterised by excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday events and situations, often without a specific cause or trigger. People with GAD may worry excessively about work, health, money, and relationships, among other things. Symptoms of GAD can include restlessness, fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, and difficulty sleeping.

Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder in which a person experiences sudden and recurrent panic attacks, which are intense, sudden episodes of fear and discomfort that reach a peak within minutes and are accompanied by physical symptoms such as chest pain, sweating, trembling, and shortness of breath. People with panic disorder often experience anticipatory anxiety, which is the fear of having another panic attack. This fear can lead to avoidance of situations that may trigger panic attacks, such as being in crowds, driving, or travelling.

Another type of anxiety disorder is health anxiety, which involves excessive worry about one’s health or the possibility of having a serious illness. This can lead to constant checking of symptoms and seeking reassurance from doctors, significantly impacting one’s ability to function.

Coping with Anxiety Disorders: Treatment Options such as CBT, ACT, hypnotherapy & mindfulness

As a therapist specialising in treating anxiety, I understand that managing anxiety can be a challenging experience. However, it’s important to know that effective treatment options are available if you struggle with anxiety disorders.

Understanding the physiology of anxiety and the different types of anxiety disorders is the first step towards managing anxiety effectively.

There are various evidence-based approaches, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), hypnotherapy, and mindfulness, that can help you cope with anxiety symptoms effectively. CBT and ACT, in particular, can help you identify and challenge negative thoughts and beliefs, while hypnotherapy and mindfulness can promote relaxation and reduce anxiety.

Are you looking for an anxiety therapist to work online at the moment? Get in touch to explore how I can support you.