Are you prone to anxiety? Anxiety is scientifically known as the “fight/flight response”. The primary purpose is to activate the organism and protect it from expected harm, whether it is real or imaginary. A number of physical, behavioral and mental changes can be experienced with this response during an anxiety attack.

Physical System

Nervous Effects of Anxiety Attacks

When some sort of danger is perceived or anticipated, the brain sends messages to a section of your nerves called the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system has two subsections or branches namely, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is the ‘fight/flight system” which releases energy and gets the body “primed” for action while the parasympathetic nervous system is the restoring system which returns the body to a normal state.

Cardiovascular Effects of Anxiety Attacks

Activity in the sympathetic nervous system produces an increase in heart rate and the strength of the heartbeat. This is vital to preparation for activity since it helps speed up the blood flow, thus improving delivery of oxygen to the tissues and removal of waste products from the tissues.

In addition to increased activity in the heart, there is also a change in the blood flow. The blood is moved to the large muscles such as the thighs and biceps, which help the body prepare for action.

Respiratory Effects of Anxiety Attacks

The fight/flight response is associated with an increase in the speed and depth of breathing. This has obvious importance for the defense of the organism since the tissues need to get more oxygen in order to prepare for action.

The feelings produced by this increase in breathing, however, can include breathlessness, choking or smothering feelings, and even pains or tightness in the chest.

A side effect of increased breathing, especially if no actual activity occurs, is that blood supply to the head is actually decreased. While this is only a small amount and is not at all dangerous, it produces a collection of unpleasant (but harmless) symptoms including dizziness, blurred vision, confusion, unreality, and hot flushes.

Sweat Gland Effects of Anxiety Attacks

Activation of the fight/flight response produces an increase in sweating from the skin. This has important adaptive functions such as making the skin more slippery so that it is harder to grab, and cooling the body to stop it from overheating.

Other Physical Effects of Anxiety Attacks

There is a decrease in salivation, resulting in a dry mouth. There is decreased activity in the digestive system, which often produces nausea, a heavy feeling in the stomach and even constipation.

Many of the muscle groups tense up in preparation for fight or flight and this results in subjective feelings of tension, sometimes extending to actual aches and pains as well as trembling and shaking.

Behavioral System

The fight/flight response prepares the body for action – either to attack or to run. When this is not possible (due to social constraints), the urges will often be shown through such behaviors as tension, guilty, shivering, improper speaking, foot tapping, pacing or snapping at people. Overall, the feelings produced are those of being trapped and needing to escape.

Mental System

The number one effect of the fight/flight response is to alert the organism to the possible existence of danger. Thus, one of the major effects is an immediate and automatic shift in attention to search the surroundings for potential threat. For this reason, it becomes difficult for the person to concentrate on other daily tasks when he/she is experiencing anxiety attacks.

If you understand the effects of anxiety attacks it is easier for you to understand the effects of medicines that are prescribed for their treatment.

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