The Anatomy of Anxiety: Understanding & Overcoming the Body’s Fear Response

Dr. Caroline Leaf
5 min readJun 9, 2022

In a recent podcast (episode #389), I talked to holistic psychiatrist, acupuncturist, and yoga teacher Dr. Ellen Vora about the importance of taking a functional medicine approach to mental health, addressing imbalances at the root, taking a whole person approach to wellbeing, her amazing new book The Anatomy of Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming the Body’s Fear Response, exploring what anxiety tells us, why women are often accused of being more anxious than men, anxiety and hormonal changes, and so much more!

As Dr. Vora points out in her new book, anxiety is not just in your head. Our mind, brain, and body are separate but integrated systems. They work together — the human mind is embodied. Anxiety and panic attacks are very real phenomena that have physical aspects, and should not just be dismissed as “they are just in your head” by medical professionals. Mental health is physical health.

Unfortunately, since the 1990s, healthcare has largely been influenced by the assumption that mental health is mainly determined by our genetics and our brain chemistry, essentially setting our destiny upon factors we cannot control. Yet, as Dr. Vora points out, our brain chemistry is often a downstream effect of something that is happening in the brain and body. Many mental health issues are closely related to physical health issues, which is why it is so important that we also address mental health on the level of the physical body. We should not just be looking at genes or brain chemistry.

This is a more hopeful way of approaching mental health because it means that, to a certain extent, we can influence our genes, DNA, and biology. Our environment plays a very big part in our mental well-being, and is something that, in many ways, we can learn to control.

This doesn’t mean we are to blame for our mental health issues, because we often cannot control what happens to us. We can, however, control how we react to what happens to us, which is incredibly empowering and hopeful — we are not just victims of life! We can learn what contributes to mental health issues, and make incremental and approachable adjustments to our lifestyles that can positively impact how we feel mentally and physically.

And we all need this hope. As Dr. Vora notes, more than 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety in any given year, a number that has only increased as a result of the Covid-19…

Dr. Caroline Leaf

Mental health expert. I have spent the last 30+ years researching ways to help people manage mental health issues in school, work, and life: