Neuroscientist reveals how to spot anxiety symptoms & help manage your mind

12 min read

From butterflies in your stomach to a change in appetite, some anxiety symptoms are more obvious than others. Renowned Neuroscientist Dr Caroline Leaf, reveals the symptoms to look out for and what can help manage your mind

Anxiety is an emotional warning signal – a healthy and natural human response to stress or any perceived threat you may encounter, as it is energy that will help us ‘sharpen our wits.’

Anxiety is experienced as a feeling of unease, worry, or even fear, that can vary from different intensities from mild to severe. This feeling is also reflected in our bodies in various ways such as gut aches, heart palpitations and so on.

While it is normal and good to experience occasional anxiety in response to specific situations, such as a job interview or an important exam, when anxiety is unmanaged, it can become a concern for many people if it becomes persistent and interferes with everyday life.

Anxiety is experienced as a feeling of unease, worry, or even fear

I’ll start by saying that anxiety is a complex condition that can affect individuals of all ages and genders. However, when it comes to research, there are some potential differences.

This year, The British Journal of Psychiatry (2021) conducted a study on anxiety in the workplace and found that women are more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety than male employees.

However, it is important to note there is a significant research gap regarding men and anxiety, and research findings may be affected by biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors, which can differ from person to person.

Some research suggests that children or young people below the age of 18 are more likely to develop anxiety. Research conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health has shown that 31.9 per cent of adolescents between 13 and 18 years old are affected by anxiety.

Factors contributing to anxiety in children could be family environment, social pressures, academic stress, and traumatic experiences. This leads to a higher risk of performing poorly in school and missing important life experiences.

READ MORE: Emotional SOS: 10 simple tactics to tackle anxiety and lift your mood


What are the main symptoms of anxiety?

If you think you may be experiencing feelings of anxiety, the first step is to become aware of your physical symptoms. It’s essential to tune into what your body is trying to tell you, as your body reflects what’s going on in your mind.

When you are out of equilibrium because of anxiety, your body will give you warning signals such as increased headaches, anxiety attacks, change in appetite, or trouble sleeping. Sometimes, your heart can feel sore because of the excess of stress chemicals flowing through your body.

It’s essential to take note and tune in to these symptoms, don’t just ignore them, because when your body is doing something out of the norm, it’s sending you a message that something in your mind is out of the norm. When you tune into your symptoms and notice what you feel, that is where you can gather awareness.

Anxiety is not limited to mental and physical symptoms, it can also affect your behaviour and perspectives too. You might find yourself avoiding certain situations or places that trigger anxiety, or you might seek reassurance from others excessively. You may see life as overwhelming and this can affect your mood.

Anxiety is not limited to mental and physical symptoms, it can also affect your behaviour and perspectives too

Anxiety can therefore manifest as gastrointestinal issues, leading to stomach aches, nausea, or irritable bowel syndrome, to mention a few lifestyle diseases. It can affect your concentration and memory, making it challenging to focus on tasks or remember details.

It’s important to note that anxiety is an emotional warning signal that will generally have other emotions attached to it like depression or frustration, as emotions tend to work together in clusters. And these in turn show up in your behavioural warning signals, for example, you may feel irritable, on edge, or easily startled.

Some individuals may even feel a shift in their perspective warning signals that go hand in hand with the emotions and behaviours, such as a sense of impending danger or doom, even when there is no objective threat.

READ MORE: Manage your mental health in 7 easy steps


What causes feelings of anxiety?

When it comes to the common causes of anxiety, we must explore the intricate interplay between our thoughts, emotions, behaviours, perspectives and brain responses.

Firstly, it is essential to understand that anxiety can arise from various sources. A primary factor in anxiety is a thought pattern characterised by stuck thinking, worry, and catastrophizing anticipation, also known as our ‘what if’ thoughts that cycle like on a hamster wheel.

Our thoughts shape our emotions, behaviours and perceptions in a feedback loop, and influence the release of stress hormones and neurotransmitters in our brains, affecting our overall mood and mental well-being. Managed anxiety will have a positive influence and unmanaged anxiety will have a negative influence.

Our environments and the people in them can be the triggers of chronic toxic stress responses

Another common cause of anxiety can be related to unmanaged and suppressed past experiences and trauma in our lives. When we encounter distressing experiences or face overwhelming challenges, our mind associates those experiences with feelings of fear and this is wired into the brain and left unmanaged, creating toxic anxiety.

When finding the root of your cause(s) for anxiety, you’ll need to consider a multitude of factors that play into the context of your life.

Our environments and the people in them can be the triggers of chronic toxic stress responses, such as demanding work environments, relationship conflict, or even a negative friend.

These factors can play a crucial role in experiencing anxiety and by embracing, processing and reconceptualizing the anxiety, you can find the root and change how it plays out into your future.

With this in mind, it is important to note that anxiety is multifaceted, and its causes can vary from person to person. By understanding these underlying factors, we can begin to explore practical strategies for managing and overcoming anxiety, elevating a healthier and more resilient mind.

READ MORE: Insomnia? Too stressed to sleep? 5 tried & tested sleep hacks to beat stress


How can someone tell they have anxiety?

Anxiety often presents itself through four categories of warning signals:

  • emotions,
  • behaviours,
  • bodily sensations and
  • perspectives.

If you become aware of these symptoms in your daily life, it is crucial to gather awareness and ask yourself, ‘how do you feel’, ‘what are you doing’, ‘how does this feel in your body’ and ‘how is this all influencing how you look at life?’.

Then ask yourself why you might be having these symptoms. Explore this through writing out the answers to these questions, to try and find the roots and origin story. Only then can we reconceptualise and reconstruct the thought(s) and therefore change how it plays out in our future.

Feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and fearful is a common response to challenging situations. While we may not always control life’s circumstances, we can change what they look like inside of us and be empowered to move forward.

What treatments help with anxiety?

Seeking professional help for mental health is important. However, there are numerous actions we can take as individuals to enhance our mental well-being alongside this, which can be empowering.

Although you may not feel powerful when you’re anxious, it’s crucial to recognise there is a lot you can do by yourself to help your anxious thoughts. It comes back to the why and understanding the root cause of why things are out of balance and why we feel what we feel.

Anxiety is an informational warning signal and is the beginning, not the end, of the inquiry. They are signals we need to explore and manage, not suppress or ignore.

Talking to someone you trust and feel comfortable around is always recommended. I have always recommended that you surround yourself with people who help your mental well-being, not hurt it.

Remind yourself that it’s essential to surround yourself with people who are good for your mental health. Take note of how certain people make you feel, and think about the people you are around when you are your happiest and truest self—these are the people you need to be around more, especially when you feel anxious or fearful!

Keep in mind that establishing boundaries is not only acceptable but necessary in life. It’s perfectly fine to decline certain commitments, it’s acceptable to break up a relationship that is consistently causing you anxiety or distress. It’s acceptable to move forward and let go. It’s acceptable to say no! It’s OK to prioritize your own well-being.

Ensuring you are moving your body as much as you can daily, is vital to maintaining your mental well-being

Oftentimes, people underestimate that life can be very challenging. We are constantly facing stressful situations at work, home… you name it. In many cases, our reactions to these situations can make things worse.

Today, many of us live inactive lifestyles while consuming too many calories, leading to excess energy. When we eat more than we need, we tend to fidget more, upsetting our blood sugar levels and potentially causing anxiety.

Eating better is a common recommendation for maintaining a happier mind and body, but it’s important to note how we eat, not just our calories or what diet is trending on social media. Identify what foods fit your overall lifestyle.

Exercise is medicine for the brain. Whether you’re walking the dog or playing sports with friends, whenever you are moving your body, you are burning energy and improving your mental and physical health.

Ensuring you are moving your body as much as you can daily, is vital to maintaining your mental well-being. Other important recommendations that will help reduce your daily anxiety are limiting your screen time, catching the morning light, and getting outdoors as much as possible throughout the day.

These lifestyle changes may seem simple, but many people forget to prioritise these crucial activities into their lifestyle.

I recently launched a seven-part programme on life transformation platform, Mindvalley, called Calm Mind: A scientific method for managing anxiety and depression, which is filled with research-based tools and techniques to help you manage your mind, increase your resilience, and manage intrusive thoughts and chronic stress.

My neuro cycle app, is a scientifically proven way of managing anxiety, and therapy if needed.

READ MORE: Feeling ‘meh’? Everything you need to know about anhedonia – the missing word in mental health


Does anxiety ever fully go away?

You don’t want anxiety to eliminate anxiety. It’s a very healthy part of being a human, the key is to manage anxiety, as I have been explaining above. With the right mind management strategies – like my neuro cycle app and the principles I explain in this quest, individuals can experience significant improvement in managing their anxiety and making it work for them.

Many people can effectively reduce their anxiety through various approaches, including therapy, lifestyle modifications, and mind management techniques.

Remember, everyone’s journey is unique. Some people may experience significant reductions in anxiety symptoms over time, while others may have periods of not feeling any anxiety at all and then have occasional flare-ups.

No matter how you heal, there is a primary goal at the end of the tunnel: developing effective mind-management strategies that will unmask resilience.

Never forget, you are not alone. Where your mind goes, your life follows. An unmanaged mind leads to an unmanaged body and will develop into an unmanaged life.

dr caroline leaf

Dr. Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist, and clinical neuroscientistneuroscientistN with a psychoneurobiological focus and has a Master’s and Ph.D. in Communication Pathology and a BSc in Logopedics, specializing in cognitive and metacognitive neuropsychology.

She was one of the first in her field to study how the brain can change (neuroplasticity) with directed mind input. Dr. Leaf has helped hundreds of thousands of students and adults learn how to use their minds to detox and grow their brains to succeed in every area of their lives and continues to conduct research and clinical trials in mental health and psychoneurobiology and publish in scientific journals.

Dr. Caroline Leaf’s quest with life transformation platform, Mindvalley, called Calm Mind: A scientific method for managing anxiety and depression, is filled with tools and techniques to help you manage your mind, increase your resilience, and manage intrusive thoughts and chronic stress.

The quest has seven lessons divided into two parts. Part one deals with the basic principles of what mind management involves, the mind-brain-body connection, how the mind is different from the brain, and what warning signals are vs. signals. In the second part, Dr. Caroline Leaf gives you a different way to look at mental health and teaches you strategies of the Neurocycle process that will help you learn how to manage your mental health.

Join Dr. Caroline Leaf on a Mindvalley Quest to unlock your emotional freedom, now available on Mindvalley.

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