Understanding our Response to Anxiety

The science bit

Our reactions to stressful situations are governed by the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). There are two main parts to it; the sympathetic and parasympathetic, and both perform critical roles in keeping us safe from a perceived threat or danger. The sympathetic part goes into high alert if it senses imminent danger and the parasympathetic part restores balance and equilibrium once the perceived danger has gone ensuring the body can relax and calm down. These processes are sometimes referred to as the “Fight or Flight “response.

Crucial to understanding the physical impact of anxiety is realising that the ANS also regulates our involuntary bodily functions like blood pressure, heart rate and even the digestive system, which of course explains some of the symptoms of anxiety, such as a racing heartbeat and digestive issues, listed above.

Of course, these responses are important if you are genuinely in danger (think of our ancient ancestors running away from a predator), but not so helpful if they persist in modern-day life.

Panic attacks

During a panic attack or whilst feeling acutely stressed, many people describe being “unable to catch their breath”. This is because they are not actually breathing out effectively. Instead, they are just taking very shallow breaths from their chest rather than their abdomen. When you breathe in this shallow manner, you get all the air you need to live, but other symptoms such as chest pain or heaviness occur because you have unconsciously tightened the muscles in your chest to an extreme degree. This then adds to your panic and as it escalates can even feel like you are having a heart attack. 

You may also feel lightheaded or dizzy as a result of the shallow breathing because you are not getting the right ratio of oxygen into your bloodstream and the body becomes short of carbon dioxide. This then stimulates the sympathetic nervous system to go on high alert. The heart responds by increasing its rate alongside the increased respiratory rate as a way to protect itself from what it perceives to be an imminent danger or a threat despite the fact that the reality may be that the situation is perfectly safe.

Relaxation techniques

To counter the effect of raised anxiety levels, there are some simple but very effective relaxation techniques we can use. They work by biologically changing the response of the ANS by calming the body down and reducing the production of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. If cortisol levels are consistently raised due to anxiety, it can have many detrimental effects on the body such as increased blood pressure, suppression of the immune system, disruption of the metabolism of glucose, decreased libido and many other manifestations.

If relaxation techniques are practiced regularly then this will be very empowering on many levels as the body and mind then have the skills to cope longer term with what life can throw at all of us. You'll also get better sleep giving increased energy and therefore better mental clarity, all of which will further help the management of anxiety.

Things to try 


Firstly, let's define what mindfulness is. It's nothing more complicated than being fully engaged in the present moment. We will still be aware of thoughts running through our heads, but by practising mindfulness and meditation (see below), we develop the skill of acknowledging that they are there and then letting them pass on through without getting caught up with any associated emotions. Sounds simple, right? With a bit of practice, it really is and it can make such a huge difference. 

Here's some FREE mindfulness online courses to try courtesy of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre


We've seen that mindfulness is the quality of being focussed in the present moment and meditation is effectively a practical tool to help us achieve that but that usually involves a specific practice. Rooted in Buddhism, meditation has a rich and long history but you certainly don't need to be a Buddhist or even spiritual to benefit from it. Even ten minutes a day will help!

According to Headspace:

"Through meditation, we familiarize ourselves with anxiety-inducing thoughts and storylines. We learn to see them, sit with them, and let them go. In doing so, we learn two important things: thoughts do not define us, and thoughts are not real. Within this newfound perspective, we are able to gradually change our relationship with anxiety, differentiating between what is an irrational episode and what’s true."

And if you want to understand the technical and scientific evidence for the benefits of meditation, take a look at the findings of this research study. For an introduction to meditation, guided courses and lots of tips and helpful information, Headspace or Calm are two apps you could try. 

Get outdoors

Wherever you live, there are always options. Whether it's heading to the park, a walk by the coast or at your local beauty spot, or just sitting in your garden, time spent outdoors is proven to be beneficial to our mental wellbeing.

Or, if you fancy getting involved in something regular with other people, how about some geocachingecotherapy or conservation projects?

If those don't float your boat, here's some other ideas to consider courtesy of Mind. The point is it doesn't really matter what you choose to do, but spending time outdoors will really help manage anxiety over time. 

Breathing exercise

Focusing on breathing can be done at any time. Try this simple exercise whenever you feel the anxiety rising:

Step 1 
Exhale slowly through pursed lips, while you relax the muscles in your face, jaw, shoulders, and stomach.

Step 2 
Take a long, slow breath in through your nose, first filling your lower lungs, then your upper lungs.

Step 3
Hold your breath to the count of "three."


Key takeaways

  • Keep in mind that you can’t control everything about a situation. 
    When something or someone is creating anxiety for you, try to remember that you can only control yourself.

  • The same goes for your reaction to a situation. 
    It is within our power to control our emotional response to it but it takes awareness and practice. 

  • Talking to a trusted friend, colleague, family member, GP, counsellor 
    It can really help get things into perspective when anxiety strikes.

  • Moderate or gentle exercise is a great way to relieve tension and help your body feel relaxed. 
    A walk in nature can be a great way to lower stress. Or try some yoga. 

  • Avoid too much caffeine and nicotine. 
    They can make anxiety symptoms worse. 

  • Avoid alcohol or unprescribed drugs for relief. 
    Alcohol particularly acts as a depressant so will ultimately make anxiety worse.

Claire is a member of our helpline and support team.

Find out more about Claire here