Most people think of anxiety solely as a mental health disorder - something they want to get rid of in order to live a more comfortable life. But while anxiety more certainly affects your day to day life, the symptoms of anxiety are actually caused by something your body needs.
Anxiety is simply the activation of your fight or flight system - a system that is supposed to keep you safe from harm. The fight or flight system relies on the endocrine system - a system of glands in your body that release hormones that trigger all of the effects of anxiety.
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Your Fight or Flight Response
Anxiety is essentially a fight or flight response that is malfunctioning. It's when you experience this reaction to danger chronically, even when no danger is present. The system itself is incredibly important, but the malfunction is what causes people so much distress. Find out what your symptoms say about your anxiety with my free anxiety test.
Not every symptom of anxiety is caused by the endocrine system, but many of them are. Stress and anxiety affect nearly every gland in your body. Your endocrine system plays a crucial role in this, releasing many of the hormones that create your anxiety symptoms.
It Starts With Your Adrenal Gland
When you have anxiety, your brain sends messengers to your adrenal gland to release epinephrine (adrenaline) into your body. That adrenaline starts preparing your body so that it can react to danger, causing things like:
- Increasing heart rate.
- Constricting blood vessels.
- Turning fat into energy.
- Dilating the pupils for better vision.
- Slowing less important bodily functions and moving resources to other areas of the body.
This improves oxygen flow to the heart, brain, and muscles and ensures your whole body is ready to take action to stay safe from danger. For those with anxiety, however, this simply causes discomfort, worry, and distress.
Your adrenaline gland also releases norepinephrine, also known as noradrenaline. This also produces much of the same reactions in your body.
Secondary Effects of Anxiety on the Endocrine System
While adrenaline and noradrenaline are considered the main culprits for anxiety, nearly every organ releases hormones as a result of stress. After the initial epinephrine release, the body goes into what's known as the "Resistance Phase."
The resistance phase is where other hormones start to play a role. The resistance phase is when the body starts releasing cortisol, or stress hormone, which is responsible for many of the damaging effects of stress. Some of the effects of cortisol include:
- Suppressing the immune system.
- Reducing inflammation in the body.
- Breaking down fat in tissues.
- Preventing protein synthesis.
Though cortisol has all of these negative features, it should be noted that they do play a purpose in the fight or flight response. If you were faced with danger, all of these actions would help ensure you stay safe. But because there is no danger and because cortisol release is chronic, that is why cortisol ends up being so damaging to your health and the body.
Thyroid hormone is also released during the resistance phase. Thyroid hormone is used to boost your metabolism, breaking down fats and proteins and turning them into energy. Stress and anxiety are known to be responsible for weight gain when you struggle with them over time, but for a few moments when you have anxiety you're actually burning fat, not gaining it. The problem is that long term anxiety causes fat deposits to grow.
Human growth hormone is also released during the resistance phase. Most of these processes are caused by the release of a separate hormone, known as the adrenocorticotropic hormone, which itself is released as a result of the corticotropin-releasing hormone. Yet these two hormones simply stimulate the secretion of other hormones. They themselves do not play a significant role in the physical symptoms of the fight or flight response.
Interestingly, it is during the resistance phase that the body is also trying to help itself return back to its normal levels (homeostasis). But for those with chronic stress, homeostasis tends to not occur.
Finally: The Exhaustion Phase
Those that respond to short term stresses tend to not reach the exhaustion phase, but those that have chronic anxiety do. The exhaustion phase is the point where the body starts to experience the more harmful effects of anxiety, because it has run out of energy to respond to anxiety and stress in a healthy way.
Cortisol continues to run rampant in your body, and the ability to stop the more harmful long term effects of cortisol decrease. Your immune system will remain suppressed (which may lead to a risk for illness), fat stores will start to grow in your midsection, your organs may start to experience structural damage because they won't have the proper defenses against stress hormones, and more.
During the exhaustion phase, which can be chronic, it becomes harder and harder to deal with stress. While exhaustion doesn't necessarily mean tiredness, this stage may also lead to fatigue, breakdown in the muscles, and much more. Many people talk about feeling drained from anxiety, and it's true that anxiety is not only draining mentally, but also draining physically.
The Endocrine System and Control
This entire system is not something you can or want to specifically control. Of course, you want to cure your anxiety - and you can, since anxiety is incredibly treatable - but what you do not want to do is stop this system from occurring in general, because it's an extremely important system for keeping you safe from harm.
What you want to do is make it easier for you to cope with stress and anxiety so that you don't activate this system as often or as easily. You can do that by simply learning proper coping tools and committing to treatments that improve your ability to deal with anxious thoughts and feelings.
Learn more about how to control your anxiety with my free 7 minute anxiety test. This test is an effective tool for overcoming anxiety and making sure that you're not releasing these hormones chronically.
Tsigos, Constantine, and George P. Chrousos.Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, neuroendocrine factors and stress. Journal of psychosomatic research 53.4 (2002): 865-871.
Cameron, Oliver G., et al. Endocrine and physiological changes during spontaneous panic attacks.Psychoneuroendocrinology 12.5 (1987): 321-331.
Nesse, Randolph M., et al. Endocrine and cardiovascular responses during phobic anxiety.Psychosomatic Medicine 47.4 (1985): 320-332.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.