When you suffer from anxiety, lots of people are going to try to give you advice. Their heart is in the right place, but often their advice doesn't help - and in some cases, it can make your anxiety worse.
One of the things you'll hear often is that you shouldn't let your anxiety bother you because "it's all in your head." But is that true? Is anxiety all in your head?
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The Origination of Anxiety
Anxiety affects different people differently. It also can have a lot of different causes. What's important is not where it originates but what you're going to do to stop it. Make sure you take my free 7-minute anxiety test before reading onward.
Anxiety is a mental health, psychological problem. So if the question is whether or not anxiety is "in your head," the answer isn't necessarily a "no." Most of the symptoms of anxiety do originate in your brain. But also claiming that anxiety is all in your head is a massive oversimplification, and ignores many of the realities of anxiety that most people fail to understand. These include:
- Neurotransmitters Neurotransmitters are chemicals in your brain that send messages and translate information. Technically they're "in your head," in the sense that they're in your brain and they can be altered by anxiety coping strategies. But neurotransmitter levels also change when you suffer from stress and anxiety, and when they change they can actually cause altered thinking, unusual sensations, and more. Neurotransmitter changes are one of the reasons anxiety is self-sustaining and difficult to control through logical thought.
- Hormones Hormones also have a fairly profound effect on anxiety - so much so that it's not entirely clear what affect them or why. We know that during certain periods of a person's life (menopause, puberty, etc.) they are much more prone to anxiety, and we know that many things - like stress, diet, exercise, and more - can all contribute to improper hormones, which in turn can lead to anxiety.
- Physical Problems/Sensations Anxiety also causes very real physical changes in the body. These changes can then create their own anxiety, and/or lead to a worsening of anxiety symptoms. Those with anxiety report physical symptoms that occur even when they do not have anxiety. These may occur for any number of reasons, but some of which are due to the lasting impact of stress on various parts of the body, and the way that anxiety affects nutrition (like magnesium).
All of these are actual, physical issues that have nothing to do with being "in your own head." It's possible your anxiety may have come first, but afterward, these symptoms and issues are very real.
But that's not all. When people say that your anxiety is in your head, they're assuming that every symptom you have is the result of your thoughts and your thoughts alone. But that's still oversimplifying it.
Anxiety Symptoms Are Real
Let's say you have an anxious thought. What happens? Well, you experience an increase in your heart rate. You start sweating. You may even start to feel as though you're in danger. With some types of anxiety you can experience this intense feeling of doom. Are all of those in your head?
Absolutely not. All of those symptoms are really occurring. They're occurring because your anxiety and your mind trigger your fight or flight response, which is a rush of adrenaline that tells your body to start activating all of these functions designed to keep you safe from harm. If you were faced with danger, then you would need all of these functions to be activated. Since you don't, it feels like anxiety.
So while something in your own head may be mental, once that adrenaline is activated the symptoms are very real, and not something you're imagining. Also, those with anxiety tend to experience rushes of adrenaline even without thoughts, because their ability to control that adrenaline weakens.
So is Anxiety Imaginary?
Anxiety is often caused by irrational thoughts and feelings, and there is a component of anxiety that is certainly mental. That's why coping tools to control anxiety work.
But the idea that you can just turn off your anxiety through logical thinking, or the belief that the symptoms you're experiencing aren't real - all of those are simply untrue, and only come from those that do not understand what you're experiencing.
The good news is that even though the symptoms aren't imaginary, they can still be cured through the right anxiety treatment.
Find out more about how to treat your anxiety with my free 7-minute anxiety test.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Dec 05, 2017.