Anxiety is a common reaction to a stressful event or environment, and it can even be beneficial as it alerts us to dangers and helps us prepare and pay attention. Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life—that’s true. However, that’s completely different from an anxiety disorder, and shouldn’t be used to downplay or invalidate the seriousness of an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are different from the usual feelings of nervousness. For it to be considered a disorder, there has to be excessive fear or anxiety and can cause people to avoid situations that trigger or worsen their symptoms. As a result, people with an anxiety disorder might skip school, work, or important family events. Job performance, school work, and personal relationships can be affected, which can result in feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Anxiety disorders are one of the most common of mental disorders with almost 30 percent of adults being affected at some point in their lives. Moreover, while they’re the most common mental disorder, they shouldn’t be downplayed.
At face value, anxiety can look like stress; but the reality isn’t so simple. Stress is often caused by external influences, while anxiety is an internal response; the difference between the two is what makes anxiety so challenging to manage, and sometimes even crippling. There may never be an answer to what causes anxiety in a person. Sometimes it can manifest on its own, without any real “trigger” or cause. However, we can use technology to help us understand anxiety a little bit better.
Brain imaging technology and neurochemical techniques have allowed scientists to discover that the amygdala and the hippocampus give a lot of clues as to how anxiety disorders work.
The amygdala is where the parts of the brain that process incoming sensory signals communicate with the parts that interpret these signals. It can alert the rest of the mind that a threat is present and trigger a fear or anxiety response. There are emotional memories stored in the central part of the amygdala and they may influence anxiety disorders by involving distinct fears, such as fears of snakes, spiders, or heights.
The hippocampus encodes threatening events into memories, which has an interesting effect on the brain. Studies have shown that the hippocampus appears to be smaller in some people who were victims of child abuse or who served in military combat.
The physical feeling of anxiety is part of the body’s stress response. When the fight or flight response is triggered, the system is flooded with norepinephrine and cortisol. Both hormones are designed to give perception, reflexes, and speed a boost in dangerous situations. They increase heart rate, increase the blood flow to muscles, increase oxygen levels in the lungs, and in general prepare a person to deal with whatever threat is present. The body turns its full attention to survival. Ideally, it all shuts down when the risk passes and the body goes back to normal. However, sometimes it doesn’t. That upsets the hormonal balance and triggers systemic inflammation, and other illnesses and disease.
Some people have lived in an anxious state for so long that they don’t know any other feeling. As a result, they are unaware that they are suffering from persistent anxiety. Recognizing anxiety isn’t obvious or easy in these types of situations; however, identifying its red flags is an excellent way to start. Ask yourself these questions:
Are you pessimistic even about the safest conditions to the point where it keeps you from taking risks?
Does your mind race about potential adverse outcomes?
Do you participate in emotional eating? Or are you a regular happy hour costumer?
If your answer is ‘yes’ to any of these questions, then you may suffer from anxiety.
For some people, anxiety is situational. It’s normal to feel nervous at the idea of having to speak in public. It’s not normal to feel anxious about casually chatting with a waiter. Situational anxiety can only be overcome by confronting it. Generalized anxiety can only be coped with by trying to rewrite the pattern of thinking that triggers it.
Suppressing anxiety is advice a lot of well-intentioned folks might try to give, but it isn’t good advice– it’s like expecting not to get hungry after not eating for a few days. Hunger will happen; whether you try to suppress it or not. The same is with anxiety. Anxiety is a normal and vitally important emotion that is there to protect us. The key is to identify “unnecessary anxiety.” Fortunately, unnecessary anxiety can be managed with preventative measures such as exercise, meditation, balancing the body’s vitamins, hormones, and microbiome, and managing nutrition, blood sugar, and general physical health. Also, it’s important to constantly challenge the veracity of anxiety-provoking thoughts.