If you or a loved one is dealing with anxiety, you’re not alone. Stress is on the rise all over the world, and it impacts nearly everyone, directly or indirectly. What is this rise in stress doing to our brains and bodies? From the latest research in the fields of neuroscience and behavioral psychology, here are 7 fascinating facts about anxiety and its physical and emotional impact.
1. Anxiety consumes our brain’s and body’s attention. When our stress response system is activated, almost all the other processes in the body and mind shut down. Bodily, our long-term immunity, reproductive and digestive systems shut down. Mentally, our higher order thinking – which is our ability to empathize and analyze – shuts down, too. Why does all this happen? The message of stress is that there’s a threat, and when there’s a threat, nothing else matters. We are preparing to react to danger by fighting, running, or hiding. That’s it. The stress response system evolved to be highly effective for coping with certain threats, such as a tiger stalking you in the jungle. You don’t negotiate with tigers. You don’t innovate. If you want to survive, you run, hide behind a bush, or hope you’ve got a big sharp stick handy. You certainly aren’t devoting energy to digestion. In terms of attention and energy, anxiety is all consuming.
2. Anxiety prohibits the growth of new brain cells. The brain’s ability to generate new cells is known as neurogenesis. It’s a vital function to maintain optimal brain functioning and mental health. What encourages neurogenesis? Research has identified 5 activities that promote the growth of new brain cells, which you can read about in this article, Staying Sharp: 5 Ways to Boost Your Brain Power. What prohibits neurogenesis? Sustained anxiety. A 2017 study published in Biological Psychiatry found that in rats, prolonged periods of stress significantly inhibited neurogenesis. This fits the pattern discussed above. Anxiety tends to focus our attention on short-term surviving, not long-term thriving.
3. Frequent anxiety makes our threat detection system more sensitive. Our brains have a remarkable system for detecting threats and activating us to respond in an instant. But there’s an interesting facet of this system that can make anxiety a vicious cycle: the more we perceive threats, the more sensitive our threat detection system becomes. The evolutionary benefit of this is obvious. If we are living in an environment with many threats, it makes sense that we should be extra sensitive to threats. The problem is in the fact that this is about perceived threats. Whether they are real or not, the more threats we perceive, the more likely we are to interpret something as a threat. To better understand this, take a look at this video about rising stress and its impacts on all of us by Six Seconds’ CEO Josh Freedman.
4. Anxious people identify changes in facial expressions more quickly – but less accurately. People with anxiety are quicker to pick up on changes in others’ facial expressions, but less accurate in identifying what emotions they are expressing, according to research from the University of Illinois. Considering that non-verbal communication makes up at least half of communication, this is a huge deficit for people struggling with anxiety, and it naturally leads to problems in relationships. This research would indicate that anxiety has an inverse relationship, at least temporarily, with the EQ skills of enhancing emotional literacy and increasing empathy.
5. Anxiety causes us to fall back into our old patterns. When we’re stressed, the brain pushes for safety. We do what we’ve done before. We get a shot of a chemical that is “natural heroin” when we follow the known, the predictable – and yes, it is addictive. Without carefully developing emotional intelligence, we fall into this million-year-old automatic reaction. As discussed in the first point above, anxiety shuts down our “higher order” thinking, and makes us rely on previously stored patterns of behavior, which most likely aren’t the best way to respond.
6. Anxiety makes everything stink, seriously. Anxious people have a tendency to label neutral smells as bad smells, according to research published in the Journal of Neuroscience. This seems to happen because the olfactory system and the emotional system become intertwined when someone is experiencing anxiety. Along with other facts about anxiety discussed above, a pattern seems to emerge that anxiety causes us to make quick decisions about what we are perceiving, but that the cost of that speed is accuracy. This makes sense. When facing a threat, speed is of the essence. But it also comes at a cost.
7. Anxiety can be physically painful. When the brain senses a threat, it floods the body with cortisol and other stress-related neurohormones. These hormones put into action a number of physical responses that prepare us to fight flee freeze. Symptoms of these changes include a tightening of the chest, headaches, nausea, muscle tension, and stomach problems. It hurts. It’s an unfortunate aspect of anxiety – but it can also serve as an early reminder when we’re experiencing anxiety – an opportunity to intervene and practice emotional intelligence. Tune in next week for specific tips to reduce anxiety with your EQ.