Anxiety is something that I could write numerous posts on. Actually, I could probably write a book. It is so prevalent in my own life, as well as the lives of my clients, that it is a topic in which I am extremely well-versed. For this reason, I am breaking this topic down into a series of posts. One just isn’t going to cut it. So, let’s start from the very beginning… what is anxiety really.
Anxiety is the most common emotional disorder in the US, affecting nearly 40 million, or 18%, of the population.
Notice I said Emotional Disorder, not Mental Illness. That’s because I do not actually view anxiety as a mental illness.
Before you go searching for your burning pitchfork, hear me out.
Anxiety is a normal emotion. It happens as a reaction to when our brain senses that we are in danger.
All humans have a flight-or-fight reflex. It is something that has been bestowed upon us by our caveman ancestors. If a physical danger is sensed, the body puts in motion a series of automatic responses, such as the release of adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol, and other chemicals and hormones to help us either fight back or get the hell out of Dodge. Strong, physical symptoms occur as these chemicals are released, such as accelerated heart and lung action, constriction of blood vessels in extremities, tunnel vision, flushing or sweating, trembling, etc.
Fortunately, the times have changed and we no longer have to worry about running away from woolly mammoths or fighting off marauding tribes. But, our brains haven’t evolved to figure that out yet.
Our brains are fantastic at analyzing, problem solving, and day dreaming – but they are also unbelievably inaccurate when it comes to perceiving reality.
Sometimes, our caveman brain perceives danger erroneously – but our body automatically believes it. Our body has no reason to second guess our brain. But, if the brain is wrong, the body cannot be reversed and continues to ready itself for no reason. We are left with all of these hormones and chemicals floating around, creating physical symptoms that prepare us for the big fight, but in reality there is nothing to prepare for. In turn, we react to these seemingly out-of-nowhere feelings, and start thinking that we are having a heart attack or have finally, completely gone out of our gourds. Once the physical symptoms finally abate (they only last about 10 minutes), we start worrying about the next time these feelings will happen again because they are SCARY, or why they happened, or worry about how much worse it will be the next time, or if others around us noticed us feeling so bizarre and think less of us, and so on. And so creates the cycle of anxiety.
And now, the $64,000 question – why does this become a problem for some people and not others?
Well, that answer is much more complicated.
There is something of a genetic component to those who develop anxiety. There have been numerous studies linking anxiety through multiple generations in families. But, even that is not a guarantee that one will develop anxiety, as there are plenty of people whose mothers/fathers/aunts/uncles/grandparents have anxiety and they do not.
Genetics only load the gun – environment pulls the trigger.
I mentioned earlier that our brains can interpret danger erroneously. When we are under stress or feel overwhelmed by situations or circumstances, our brain can read this as a threat. One only needs to see a person trying to balance a laptop and Ipad on their lap while talking on their phone to understand just how overwrought we are as a society. Or watch the news for 5 minutes and see the multitude of reports of violence, fear of terrorism, and updates on the various deadly viruses and tell me if that doesn’t raise your pulse a bit. As a society, we live in a constant state of being so overwhelmed that we feel unable to cope effectively and out of control. So many of us are so precariously balancing our work and home lives, in addition to being bombarding us with messages that we are unsafe from, well everything – that it really doesn’t take much to break the proverbial camel’s back for some of us. If someone has a predisposition towards developing anxiety, a person’s environment will either activate that possibility or keep it dormant.
So – what can be done to fix this? How is anxiety best treated? How can we stop the anxiety cycle? Stay tuned for my next post where I will address the various treatment options and what, in my humble opinion, works best.
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