All About Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders


What is Anxiety? Anxiety is an emotional and physical state that can be experienced by virtually anybody. It involves feeling uneasy, agitated or on edge and includes the experience of physical  sensations  such  as  jitteriness,  feeling  flushed, butterfly's in the stomach, increased heart rate, sweating and dizziness etc. Anxiety is distinguished from fear in that fear is typically felt in direct relation to an imminent situation or event such as a growling dog. The two are however strongly related, in that you usually are Example Imagefeeling fearful of something when anxiety is present. Sometimes with anxiety disorders the object of fear is often not obvious but nevertheless will always be there. For example, losing control, going crazy, having a heart attack, passing out etc.

Anxiety is also different to stress although often people use the term stress to describe anxiety. Another term for stress is load, in that if you place stress on an object you are placing it under load. Emotional stress refers to load being placed on your emotions by things such as work or relationship stress. The modern world can place a lot of demands on us which are stressful, but stress in itself does not cause anxiety. It can however act to trigger anxiety once an anxiety disorder is present or in the stages of development.

How do Anxiety Disorders Develop?

'The Fight or Flight Response': All anxiety disorders occur essentially as a result of a response called the 'fight or flight response' having been triggered for the wrong reason. The fight or flight response involves a series of physical reactions which occur within our bodies in response to life threatening danger. All animals are capable of this response, because during the course of evolution it was needed to improve our chances of survival from predators and other potentially life threatening situations.

According to current evolutionary theory human beings have been evolving from early proto-humans for approximately 2.3 million years. For most of the course of this evolution our ancestors lived in a very quiet but dangerous world. There were no buildings or machines. There were not even herd animals, crops or weapons of any kind. When our ancestors awoke each morning the only sounds that they would hear would be bird and other animal noises, maybe the sound of rain, surf or running water, the wind in the trees and that's about it. Typically if things got very noisy or busy it meant that a potentially life threatening danger, such as a sabre toothed tiger, was present and they had to respond very quickly to survive. The fight or flight response evolved as a method of reacting at our strongest and fastest when we were attacked by such predators.

Our ancestors were no match for a sabre toothed tiger. If confronted by one they would have reacted by either attempting to fight or run (flight) from the attacker. To improve their chances of survival primitive areas of our ancestors brains (such as the thalamus and the amygdala) would have reacted instantly in a number of ways, including increasing their heart rate (to pump blood to the large skeletal muscles such as the thighs); by causing the release of adrenalin in large doses to make their muscles strong; by increasing their breathing rate (to provide oxygen to the muscles); by engaging the sweat response (to keep the muscles cool) and by making their thoughts race (to give them more chances to make life saving decisions in a small amount of time). The fastest and strongest of our ancestors would have survived the tiger attack, while the slower and weaker would have perished. The survivors would have lived on to have more children who would have inherited their parents superior 'fight or flight' reactions. Over millions of years of evolution the response became stronger and stronger assisting us to survive in a world full of predators.

As a result humans in the modern world now have a finely tuned, powerful and automatic primitive brain alarm system but now there are no predators to respond to. The world now is comparatively safe but is also very busy and noisy. It is little wonder that this noise at times can set off the fight or flight alarm inappropriately (during evolution busyness and noise typically meant life threatening danger). When this occurs we might be left standing there wondering why our heart is racing and our head feels weird for no apparent reason. We then attempt to come up with logical explanations for the symptoms such as "there's something wrong with my heart" or "I'm going crazy". Such an occurrence is typically referred to as a panic or anxiety attack.

The type of anxiety disorder that may develop depends, for the most part, on the context in which the first experience of significant anxiety occurs. If it first occurs in a social setting Social Anxiety Disorder may develop; in relation to worry then Generalised Anxiety Disorder may occur; if resulting from trauma then Post Traumatic Stress; if while in a closed space claustrophobia, etc etc. Anxiety disorders need not necessarily begin with an anxiety attack. They can build more slowly as a result of avoidance of situations which trigger elevated anxiety or partially activate the fight or flight response.

What about Genetics? We all have the genetic capacity to become anxious or depressed as both mechanisms were essential to our survival in the primitive world of our ancestors click here to read more about the evolutionary role of depression. Anxiety disorders and depression do however, often seem to run in families. The weight of research to date indicates that this likely results from our responses to anxiety producing situations being inadvertently taught to us by those around us when we are very small. The good news is that because the responses to anxiety producing situations (which leads to later onset of anxiety disorders) can be learned, they can also be unlearned. You just need the right knowledge and approach to allow this to happen. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is the best evidenced treatment currently employed for this purpose. Click here to read more about CBT and other treatment methods for anxiety disorders.

What Types of Anxiety Disorders Are There? Psychologists differentiate between seven primary anxiety disorder types. These are -

                1) Panic Disorder. Panic disorder can occur with or without agoraphobia Click here to read more about   

                    panic attacks and panic disorder.

                2) Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Click here to read more.

                3) Social Anxiety Disorder. Click here to read more.

                4) Specific Phobias. Click here to read more.

                5) Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Click here to read more.

                6) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Click here to read more.

                7) Acute Stress Disorder. Click here to read more.

                8) Childhood Separation Anxiety.  Click here to read more.

Another anxiety problem which is being recognised more of late is Post Natal Anxiety. Often post natal anxiety is labeled post natal depression. Click here to read more about post natal anxiety.

Often the experience of an anxiety disorder can lead to the onset of depression. Essentially if you are feeling trapped by any situation in your life (including anxiety) then depression can occur. Click here to read more about how depression may develop as a result of anxiety.

There are a number of other psychological problems which also often relate to the 'fight or flight response'. These include-

                1) Trichotillomania that is a disorder involving involuntary hair pulling.

                2) Body dysmorphic Disorder.

                3) Anger/aggression difficulties.

please note links to other pages with information on these topics will be added to this web site at a later date.

Often anxiety can also form a significant component of other psychological and general health problems including-

                1) Sleep Disorders.

                2) Eating Disorders.

                3) Alcohol and other drug disorders.

                4) Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

When this occurs obtaining treatment for anxiety can significantly enhance the treatment outcomes for the primary disorder.

please note links to other pages with information on these topics will be added to this web site at a later date.        

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