Among patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) anxiety is one of the two most prevalent psychological disorders.—Depression is the other.—That is why this next blog series is focused on anxiety. (Also prevalent among people with IBS are panic symptoms or panic attacks, which are particularly acute forms of anxiety.)
My aim is to help you to understand the nature of anxiety and how to work with it so that you can better regulate your nervous system and body, thereby decreasing your psychological and physiological symptoms.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a set of sensations, as opposed to an emotion, that feels like a surge in energy or a restlessness. “The classic anxiety response”, according to Leadership Expert Dr. John Kenworthy in his popular You Tube video—you can watch it by clicking the link at the end of this post—on stress and anxiety, involves “rapid heartbeat, increased blood pressure, sweating, and pupil dilation.” These sensations of anxiety are associated with an increase in sympathetic activation, meaning that your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is caught in a chronically aroused state of sympathetic arousal, or fight-or-flight.
Generated by the brain, fight-or-flight is a whole-body experience that occurs under stress. Stress is your body’s natural reaction to a stressor, something or anything that your ANS deems threatening. Typically, when we say we are stressed, we can identify a stressor that is making us feel stressed, be it an exam, interview, performance, or difficult situation of some sort. While stress is usually attributable to a clear stressor, anxiety often presents without a clear stressor.
Stress Without a Clear Stressor
Just because you don’t recognize a stressor doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Stress only happens because of the presence of a stressor.
How can it be that your body could be reacting to a stressor without your conscious awareness of a stressor? Easy! The ANS is autonomic, meaning that it doesn’t need you to consciously control its activity. No matter what you are doing or where your attention is, your ANS is constantly assessing your environment for danger to ensure your survival and signaling other parts of your brain and body to react when a threat is detected.
Just as it was initially designed to do thousands of years ago, when human beings lived under constant mortal threat by predators and rival tribes competing for vital resources, your nervous system responds in the same way to modern-day threats, life-threatening or not. All stressors generate the same general stress response, though there are variations in intensity level based on the severity of the threat and the nuanced way our brains and bodies react to each specific stressor.
Increase your awareness about your own Autonomic Nervous System, particularly how your brain and body behave under stress across a wide variety of stressors, especially as you discover stressors that you didn’t realize were stressors, and you will have a great deal of valuable information with which to work towards healing.
Anxiety Precedes Physiological Symptoms
For many of the people I see in my practice with functional medical/gastrointestinal (GI) problems like IBS and chronic pain, anxiety is often the first symptom or indication that a functional medical/GI problem is brewing. Anxiety typically precedes the chronic physiological symptoms (and panic symptoms).
Increasing Anxiety Difficult to Notice
Many people don’t even realize that they have anxiety, which may partially explain why functional medical symptoms (and panic symptoms) sneak up on us and are so rampant. Anxiety can actually be difficult to notice.
When anxiety develops gradually over time or has been present your whole life, it’s normal not to notice it. When you are born into a family with anxious parents, your genetics plus constant exposure to anxiety in your family system make it far more likely that you will develop anxiety as well as make it more difficult to recognize anxiety.
The Risk of Living with Chronic Anxiety
You could be living with a chronically high level of anxiety yet not notice it until it reaches an even higher level of anxiety as your nervous system encounters more stimuli it deems threatening. Without the ability to recognize in a timelier way the reactions your nervous system is having, the less ability you have to address stress and anxiety, and the more likely that stress and anxiety will eventually exceed your body’s capacity to manage it. At that point, physiological symptoms, or functional medical problems, are very likely to develop.
The Tangled Web of Dysfunction
Your functional medical problem represents a tangled web of dysfunction, and anxiety is very much a part of this web, not some separate diagnosis unrelated to your physiological problems. This is especially true for functional gastrointestinal problems.
Over time you can make sense of your functional medical problem as you untangle this web. Your anxiety is a key to understanding the way your nervous system functions, empowering you to untangle yourself from the grips of unpleasant physiological functional medical symptoms.
Healing Involves Working with Anxiety
To heal from a functional medical/GI problem, you can’t just focus on the physiological symptoms or diet and completely ignore the underlying anxiety. Focusing on the physiological symptoms without addressing the anxiety is like putting a Band-Aid on a deep gash.
Without addressing the anxiety, the likelihood that you will continue to have physiological symptoms is high. Even if you have success at treating the current physiological symptoms without addressing the anxiety, you are more likely to develop other physiological symptoms.
Anxiety represents a dysregulated nervous system. Work towards regulating the nervous system gradually over time, and you will find not just relief but also healing and eventual recovery from anxiety, depression, panic, and the physiological symptoms associated with your functional medical problem.
Stay tuned…More on how to understand and work with anxiety is coming soon in my next blog post.
Dr. John Kenworthy’s video on what happens in the brain and body when you are anxious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gmwiJ6ghLIM.