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Understanding Anxiety: Naming It, Claiming It and Breaking the Cycle

The Magazine: Understanding Anxiety: Naming It, Claiming It and Breaking the Cycle

It’s an epidemic that impacts so many of us — and one that doesn’t show any signs of slowing. But what are the causes and implications if left untreated at an individual and societal level? Let’s take a closer look.

What is anxiety?

By definition, anxiety is a reaction to stress that has both physical and psychological features. It’s a feeling we all recognize: heart and breathing rates increase and muscles tense, as blood flow is diverted from the abdominal organs to the brain. As a regular emotion, anxiety is a healthy, functional “fight or flight” response that enables the body to take extra precautions to protect itself — the body is essentially preparing for crisis. But anxiety in the absence of a real crisis interferes with both our daily lives and long-term health. And, it’s the most common mental disorder in the United States, affecting over 40 million Americans (18%). Nearly two-thirds of those estimated 40 million adults struggling with anxiety disorders are women. And depression, often caused by anxiety, is now the leading cause of disability worldwide.


While some cases of anxiety are short-term and perfectly normal, many people experience chronic and debilitating anxiety, a legitimate disorder with wide-ranging symptoms that can drastically impact their health, overall quality of life and ability to function daily. In fact, evidence suggests that people with chronic anxiety are at greater risk for developing many other chronic health conditions. And sadly, it has become a silent epidemic in this country, with about 30% of those with anxiety disorders going through life without treatment.

Anxiety can refer to many symptoms, including:

  • Fear
  • Nervousness
  • Paranoia
  • Headache
  • Heart palpitations (which can increase anxiety)
  • Numbness or pins and needle sensations
  • Sweating or hot flashes
  • Restlessness or restless legs
  • Fatigue
  • Poor concentration
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Muscular aches
  • Sleeping issues

So what causes it?

The root causes of anxiety are broad and complex, ranging from parental pressure during childhood, financial problems, chronic stress or pain, traumatic experiences, and even loneliness and spending too much time online — and every case of anxiety is different, with causes that must be identified by the individual. But typically, there’s a triggering event that causes the initial response, which can include a range of symptoms, including:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea and frequent urination

These physical effects are counterproductive, taking a toll on our physical and mental health.

One thing that all of these symptoms have in common: inflammation.

Anxiety and inflammation are self-perpetuating, meaning they feed each other. Anxiety isn’t caused by inflammation alone, but mental and emotional stress causes an inflammatory response in the body that can alter the way the brain, gut and nervous system act. This can worsen anxiety and in some cases, lead to the development of depression and leaky gut (a common digestive condition in which bacteria and toxins are able to “leak” through the intestinal wall), which further perpetuates anxiety.

In order to escape the cycle of anxiety, we need to begin to better understand the individualized root causes and how they relate to our everyday choices and lifestyle habits. Stress doesn’t always lead to anxiety, and some people experience stress and anxiety regularly without chronic problems. But if your anxiety is manifesting as inflammation, it’s important that you address the potential root causes as soon as possible.