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An Understanding of Anxiety

Updated: Aug 10, 2022

Euan Cook summarises the science behind anxiety disorders, the potential causes, and what we can do to help improve our mental health.

Anxiety is what individuals feel when they’re worried, tense, or afraid, and the symptoms can present themselves differently from person to person. Someone who is suffering from anxiety may feel inclined to avoid a wide variety of situations.

In the US, 31.1% of the population experience anxiety in their lifetime; in the UK, only 4.7% have anxiety problems, with as many as 9.7% suffering from a combination of depression and anxiety, proving that this issue is not simple or singular.

Social Media and Societal Pressure

Dr. Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli states that about half of diagnosable mental health disorders start by age 14. Social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, affects both men and women equally: a total of about 15 million US adults. Whilst generalised anxiety disorder affects nearly 7 million US adults, it is twice as common in cisgendered woman as in men.

Geo-societal situations like the cost-of-living crisis, cultural trends in fashion and lifestyle, and the political and humanitarian crisis in the Middle East or the Russian invasion of Ukraine are all factors that can worsen anxiety disorders. However, the relatively new digital age the Western world has entered is a leading cause of wanting to ‘fit in’ and, ultimately, anxiety disorder.

Social media has been the focus of a lot of research surrounding the acceleration of anxiety disorder in young adults. Some estimates suggest that there are 3 billion active monthly users of social media. Consequent addiction is thought to affect 5% of the younger generation, and has been described as more addictive than alcohol and cigarettes.

A users’ ‘obsession’ could be linked to instant gratification and dopamine production. For example: the number of ‘likes’ could lead to negative self-reflection. The continual ‘refreshing’ of the page is symptomatic of an continual desire for personal validation.

Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety can be a general sense or feeling which can become crippling for some, and at its worst it can be mistaken for a heart attack since they have very similar symptoms. Although anxiety can be harmless in the short term, it can increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, substance dependency, and depression.

The symptoms of anxiety can be unique to each individual, but here are some of the more common symptoms:

  • a churning feeling in your stomach or IBS

  • feeling restless or unable to sit still

  • headaches, backache or other aches and pains

  • faster breathing

  • a fast, thumping or irregular heartbeat

  • sleep problems

  • nausea (feeling sick)

  • having panic attacks and catastrophising

The Central Nervous System

To understand the science behind anxiety, its worth understanding the central nervous system, which is where we process many of our emotions and situations.

  • The Sympathetic Nervous System: on an evolutionary level, anxiety is the feeling that stems from our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. Certain hormones and chemicals are released, such as adrenaline and cortisol, from the endoctrine system, which accelerate our heart beat and makes us feel more alert; this directs blood to the organs and muscles required to help us react to a perceived danger.

  • Parasympathetic Nervous System: this nervous system is often referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ system, functioning to conserve the body’s natural activity. Once an emergency has passed, there is a decreased arousal on areas such as the eyes, saliva glands, stomach and bladder nerves, and blood vessels. The key component to regulate the parasympathetic nervous system is the vagus nerve.

  • The Vagus Nerve: an increase in the ‘vagal tone’ activates the parasympathetic nervous system, meaning we can relax quickly after an emergency. However, most anxiety sufferers experience persistent symptoms due to their vagal tone not being effectively stimulated.

Our overall mental health, biological sex, and coping skills are critical factors in our susceptibility to developing anxiety; for some, this is rooted in unresolved past traumas or insecurities in early life and relationships. If you develop anxiety of this nature, a PTSD diagnosis may follow if one experiences flashbacks or nightmares about a specific traumatic event or a longer series of trauma.

When unregulated, the nervous system can develop ‘triggers’ for anxiety sufferers, which can be similar to PTSD. After a traumatic event, these triggers may be activated and can cause someone to potentially experience various symptoms, leading to a panic attack.

Panic attacks are one of the leading consequences of anxiety disorders, exaggerating your body’s normal response to danger, stress or excitement, and can last between 5 and 20 minutes. If someone has experienced trauma in their lives, our nervous system can become unregulated and could take some time to re-balance.

Techniques to Help Tackle Anxiety

There are three main ways which can help battle anxiety involving how you regulate your body and your thought processes:

  • Breathing exercises can help manage anxiety and make you feel a lot calmer. Gently breathe through your nose and mouth at a regular pace. At the same time, slowly tense then relax the muscles in your body from your toes to your head.

  • Physical exercises can achieve the same effects. For example: going for a walk, trying yoga or going for a run can help relieve built up tension, lighten those thoughts and practice being in the present.

  • Diary keeping every time you feel anxious or have a panic attack can help spot triggers of these experiences. This certainly helps people feel more in control of their anxiety.

Bonus tip:

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, it is worthwhile to seek professional support to discuss these issues. There's a lot of support and proven-to-work therapy such as CBT available for those who need it.

For more information try calling Mind on 0300 123 3393 or Samaritans can be contacted for free at 116 123, or by emailing More advice on anxiety can be found on the NHS website.


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