Anxiety and The Nervous System

Stress and Anxiety

Due to the uncertainty of life events, stress is inevitable and can be triggered through a variety of reasons or events. The human mind tends to respond to stress in either an adaptive or maladaptive way.  A maladaptive response would be known as Anxiety.

Anxiety causes symptoms related to a fear of the future and concerns around things that have yet to occur or may never occur. When this type of maladaptive thinking occurs, the stress it causes leads individuals to develop avoidance behaviours that can cause issues to last longer. Often, these symptoms may cause a person to ask themselves “what if” questions, which can create more maladaptive scenarios, further amplifying the anxiety and therefore leading to extreme feelings of worry.

The Nervous System and Its Relation To Stress/Anxiety


With regard to the nervous system and its response to Anxiety, the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands come in to play. Our sympathetic nervous system controls the flight, fight or freeze response during an event where stress is emerging. Adrenal glands help regulate our system when under stress by releasing necessary hormones that help with metabolism regulation, as well as regulation of immune system and blood pressure which are essential for human functioning. During an event where Anxiety is developed, the sympathetic nervous system sends a signal to our adrenal gland to release adrenaline, which leads to increased heart rate. With prolonged stress, the adrenal glands are also exposed to prolonged stress and essential hormones are surpassed from production leading to anxiety.

Managing stress/anxiety


Often in therapy, mindfulness is a strategy that is discussed when working with stress/anxiety related concerns. With mindfulness, one can learn to focus on the present moment, as often anxiety leads to unrealistic future thoughts and worry about events that are not in one’s control. The present moment can help establish the perspective that one can control what occurs in front of them in the present time and then focus on the goals that they would like to accomplish to create a better future without the barrier.

Some mindfulness tasks can include:

  1. Informal mindfulness such as reframing focus to what you are doing in the current moment, for example if you are drinking coffee, re-focusing your thoughts on the cup you are holding, the surroundings in the area you’re in, or even naming things that you can see to reshape focus to what is occurring now.
  2. Formal mindfulness includes deep breathing, taking deep breaths, focusing on the breath and guiding your mind away from maladaptive thoughts.
  3. Nature walks.
  4. Setting an agenda for the day.

Therapeutic help can also be beneficial in supporting individuals as they reframe their thinking. It is the therapist’s job to work with the client to understand their concerns and to help try and reduce stress levels by providing psychoeducation and tools to better help them cope with and manage their anxiety responses.

This blog was written by Registered Psychotherapist, Shiwan Ibrahim. Shiwan works with individual 15+ and couples. For more information, or to book a free consultation, reach out to us at 519.302.2300 or email