Simplified Science: Anxiety

We had such a brilliant response to Katie’s last post on the pill that it was inevitable that we asked her back for more. She manages to take something which could be boring, or at least too technical for those of us with no science background, and make it truly accessible, and what’s more really, really interesting. Not only that, but this stuff is important. If you know why your body is doing something, it makes it a hell of a lot easier to deal with it. 

Katie got married literally only a couple of weeks ago (and is just back from her honeymoon – give her some love) so if anybody is going to know about Anxiety, it’s going to be her…

After my last post lots of you asked lots of questions, all of which I promise I will get round to answering (sorry for my poor efficiency, planning a wedding and doing a research masters = very stressed nerd bride). One of the questions that really stuck out for me was Amy asking for information about anxiety, because understanding the physiology and biochemistry of anxiety really helped me when I was dealing with my own anxiety issues. This isn’t about treating your anxiety, or understanding the underlying causes of it. I can’t do that for you. This here is simply giving you the information to understand what is happening to your body when you’re anxious and panicking and terrified. This is to show you that what you are experiencing is normal, and that you can respond to it. You can wrench control back. The causes of anxiety are in your head but the effects are physiological and many of them are things that you can understand and learn to respond to and control.

The thing about anxiety is that you need it. It is, in essence, you experiencing the sensation of fear, and you need fear. You are meant to be able to feel afraid, if you had no sense of fear or anxiety you’d be dead the moment you walked out the door. Back in the very-very olden days, you’d have been eaten by a lion or a sabre toothed tiger, or some other prehistoric beastie, now you’d probably get knocked down by a bus. The point is that you need a basic healthy level of fear/anxiety to survive the world around you.

Fear, at a basic level, is the fight or flight response. You’ve all heard of that, you’re confronted by something that wants you for lunch and you have to be ready to either outrun the thing, or wrestle it to the ground and have it for YOUR lunch. Either way, you need the ability to act fast and effectively.  Luckily, because it is ace, your body has a system set up for just such an eventuality; the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

Your ANS is responsible for all the things that you do without ever having to think about them. Life is too short to be remembering that you need to beat your heart, and breathe, and digest food, and excrete waste, and generally keep on top of staying alive, so your ANS takes care of this while you get on with walking and talking and thinking and generally being awesome. Your ANS is split into two halves, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems. The one responsible for getting you away from Things That Want To Eat You And Other Bad Things is the sympathetic nervous system.

So, you’re confronted by a thing. It may want to eat you, it may be a spider, or the abstract thought of losing someone dear to you, or the idea of going outside. It may be the thought that you’ve left your hair straighteners on. Whatever it is, this thing scares you, and when your brain is scared, it produces hormones.  Unlike the last time we met hormones, these ones don’t have clipboards, they’re still hyper-organised but this time they have Kevlar vests and klaxons, and a kick-ass theme tune. They’re the SWAT team of hormones. The hypothalamus begins by producing corticotropin-releasing hormone, which shoots to the anterior pituitary gland to tell it to start making adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), sharpish. ACTH then rushes to the adrenal gland, which lets loose a flood of cortisol and also stimulates production of adrenaline.

And NOW, we’re getting somewhere. Cortisol and adrenaline are your stress-response superheroes.  They zoom around the body, like superman on crack, psyching your body up for a fight. They…

-Increase your blood sugar levels. Between them they inhibit the production of insulin, because insulin lowers your blood glucose levels, which you don’t want when you need energy for running; they stimulates the process of glyogenolysis, which is the conversion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles in glucose that can be used as a source of energy for running; and they increase glycolysis, which is the process of turning glucose in pyruvate, which can then be used by cells to generate energy.  They also increase production of glucagon by the pancreas. Glucagon is the opposite hormone to insulin; it acts to increase blood glucose levels. It also increases lipolysis in fatty tissue, converting stored fat into sugars that can be used, once again, for running very fast.

-Increase your heart rate.  Adrenaline causes the smooth muscle that lines your veins to contract; this squeezes blood back to your heart faster, and increases your blood pressure. At the same time, the smooth muscle lining your arteries dilates, so blood can shoot to your muscles faster. Adrenaline also goes directly to your heart and kicks it into action, so it pumps faster and faster.

-Increases your breathing rate. Your heart is already rocketing oxygen to your muscles at an impressive rate, so to keep up your lungs have to get more oxygen to your heart. You start to breathe faster. The smooth muscle in your airways is forced to relax, so that more air can get through.

-Contract your muscles and make you sweat. Your body is preparing for exertion; your superhero stress team tenses your muscles ready for action, causing your chest to feel tight and your throat muscles to feel constricted, so you can’t swallow properly.  Your sweat glands try to cool you down, so that you’re ready for all the running/kicking ass you might be about to break into.

The problem with all of this is that while it’s a phenomenally effective response to lots of scary shit, if the thing that scares you is intangible, or something that you cannot fight or flee from, you’re still helpless. You sit there, imagining your worst fears coming true, and your heart rate rockets, you start to pant, your muscles are primed and ready to fight, and the sweat pours off you but there is no physical battle for you to enter, and you don’t know where to run. There are two things that might help.

First, the really clever thing about the body’s response to stress is that it is self-limiting. One of the effects of cortisol is to inhibit the production of corticotropin-releasing hormone from the hypothalamus. This means that once released, cortisol effectively begins to stop its own production. In fact, if you are experiencing a stress response, one of the really comforting thoughts is that once it has started, it will already be stopping itself. These superheroes don’t just run riot and leave the city in devastation, they organise the clean up.

Second, if you know what your body is doing, you can work with it to regain control. Force yourself to breathe slowly; your heart rate will begin to come down. Try to move; understand that your body has been ready to spring into action; it’s just provided you with a mega-ton of energy to use, so walk it off. Above all, know that what you are experiencing is normal, your body has simply misunderstood, but it is still in control. It knows what it’s doing.

I know that none of this can stop you fearing the things you fear, but hopefully they can help you manage it when the fear takes over. And if they don’t help, well then hopefully you have a renewed appreciation for how downright bad-ass your body is in an emergency.

*Neither Katie nor AOW are medical professionals, so if you think you suffer from anxiety, or anything else for that matter, you should go and see your friendly GP. Now. That’s an order.*

Categories: Health, Wise Women
29 interesting thoughts on this


  1. Posted June 19, 2012 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Katie you are a wonderful writer. I hope someone reads these posts who then can open whatever research/writing doors you wish.

  2. Posted June 19, 2012 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    Superman on crack?

    I will remember this one for a long time. Brilliant writing Katie x

  3. Posted June 19, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. This was brilliant!

    • Posted June 19, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      Literally, anytime! Thanks for asking the question :-D

      K x

  4. Becca
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    My favourite line is about the SWAT hormones that don’t come with clipboards.

    Just so you know….mine probably do come with clipboards. Fan of clipboards at Becca HQ.

    Love it. I want to know more about everything,

    • Becca
      Posted June 19, 2012 at 8:03 am | Permalink

      Also….MASSIVE congrats x x

      • Posted June 19, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

        THANKS! :-D

        Got to love clipboards. I want an excuse to carry one everywhere I go.

        K x

        • Posted June 19, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

          In my last two jobs I’ve had, I frequently used clipboards. Liked it a bit too much!

  5. Roz
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Really interesting post Katie and so well written. Can’t wait for the next subject you tackle for us :D x

  6. Posted June 19, 2012 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Our bodies are amazing, aren’t they. And you love them more than anyone I know, and it comes through in your writing. I love these posts. Peach, grey, and navy-accented lab coat for you, stat!

    • Posted June 19, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      They are AMAZING. I literally never stop being amazed and awed and stunned by them, they are endlessly fascinating and incredible. My Dad described me as being “like a Border Collie, all nonstop bouncing enthusiasm, except about science, not food and throwing sticks”

      Although I DO like food and throwing sticks, to be fair. Also, my lab coat does have accents of blue, because I often spill protein stain on myself :-D

      K x

  7. Chirsty
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    As someone who has spent the last year being randomly accosted by panic attacks (irrational, out of the blue and certainly not associated with a pending stampede of wild beasts) this whole post is a tremendous comfort.
    So much more so than the repeated “its all in your head / pull yourself together / why aren’t you trying harder to not be so WEIRD / stop it, you’re embarrassing me “.

    Have a feeling ‘Once it has started it is already stopping itself’ may become a new mantra. And the choice to work together with your own personal super heroes? What’s not cool about that?!
    Fantastic writing too.
    Thank you.

    • Posted June 19, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      Oh, I’m so glad you found it comforting. I so know that inner voice that tells you to stop being silly and falling apart, to pull yourself together and be *normal* dammit, and that voice is never helpful. You’re categorically not weird at all for suffering from panic attacks, I promise! I hope you can start to deal with the panic attacks, never be afraid to tell your GP if you’re struggling.

      K x

      • Posted June 19, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

        yes – do – cognitive behavioural therapy is amazing for helping you cope with panic attacks – and get rid of them… Good luck, I hope you overcome it soon.

  8. Mahj
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    I love that a set of my hormones come complete with Kevlar vests!

    Katie, resident AOW Science Genie, this was of course brilliant! Can’t wait for the next one.


  9. Posted June 19, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Brilliant katie!

  10. Zan
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Hormones with a theme-tune? Genius :) Great post Katie!

  11. Steff
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    This is brilliant!! It’s nice to know what actually causes all those feelings, and nice to know that there are ways to control them too.

    Excellent writing Katie :) xx

  12. Vivienne
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Brilliant post – thank you Clever Science Katie!

    I think anxiety is something that affects us all at one point or another – I went through a period of it last year where I found myself getting very panicky and upset which, when you are normally as laid back as a tranquilised sloth, came as a shock. But it is a problem with a solution most of the time – and I hope anyone who is suffering long term takes this post and goes to the GP for a chat


  13. Posted June 19, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Thank you all :-)

    Just have to reiterate what Clare said at the end there, this is only meant to be interesting and informative and really really cool, in no way is anything I write ever diagnostic. While this helped me deal with my anxiety and recurrent panic attacks when I was suffering from them a lot, I also had a lot of help from friends and family, and a LOT of help from a very wonderful therapist, so if you are struggling, please please don’t be afraid to tell someone and ask for support. Your body is awesome, and your molecules are definitely kick-ass superheroes, but even so you might sometimes need a little help.

    K x

  14. Posted June 19, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    I have suffered from anxiety and panic attacks since time immemorial, and have done SO much reading around the subject in order to get my head back on straight. This is the clearest, most informative piece I have ever EVER read on the subject. Go Katie!


    • Posted June 19, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      Me too. I can’t begin to understand the ‘why’ of something, if I don’t understand the ‘how’!

  15. Posted June 19, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    This is brilliant! Katie, you really have a knack for explaining science in an informative, humorous, easy-to-understand way. The government needs to snap you up and make you Science Tsar!

  16. Posted June 19, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Superb, Katielase! Sorry for short message but manic manic day.x

  17. starlet_haylz
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    This is great. I’m a clinical psychologist and one of the most important parts of my job is to give people this understanding in accessible format which you’ve done fabulously here – I might nick some of your phrases – “stress-response superheroes”!!!

3 Trackbacks

  • By Simplified Science: Polycystic Ovary Syndrome on July 17, 2012 at 9:09 am

    [...] posts on How The Pill Works, with clipboard carrying hormones named Barbara and Robert, and Anxiety, complete with hormones dressed like members of SWAT, we knew that we needed Katie to write more. [...]

  • By The Basics of Anxiety « The Anxiety Project on December 1, 2012 at 1:21 am

    [...] is going on in my body when I’m having a panic attack, so I went hunting around and found this great blog. I learned that the human body is equipped with some amazing things to help in times of crisis, [...]

  • [...] Caffeine doesn’t just wake up your brain, though. It can also increase your heart rate; it does this in two ways. First, your pituitary gland, the observant little fellow that it is, notices all the increased neural activity going on because caffeine usurped adenosine. It interprets this increase in activity as an emergency situation, probably because it doesn’t like loud music, and reacts by releasing stress hormones, which act to increase your heart rate, amongst other things. [...]

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Hello! We're Clare, Aisling and Anna and welcome to a corner of the world where smart, flawed, real women talk about the bigger picture; about their experiences, stories and opinions on all aspects of being a woman today, from marriage to feminism to pretty, too.

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