In the United States, anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults between the ages of 18 and 54; that’s approximately 18.1 percent of all adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health
The human experience is fraught with anxiety and worry. These feelings manifest both emotionally and physically. For example, when asked to give a speech in front of a group of co-workers, an individual may experience fear and dread—the emotional response—as well as clammy hands and a dry mouth—the physical event. The fear or perceived fear has caused the body’s nervous system to enter protection mode.
Ever been around someone who is short-tempered before a visit to the dentist? People who fear the dentist may experience an increase in frustration levels and a reduction in tolerance levels. The nervous system recognized fear, or some form of threat, and has activated the body to respond accordingly. These responses, although uncomfortable, are short-lived and a normal activity of your nervous system. Typically, the nervous feelings decrease or end after the stressful event.
However, for some, the nervous feeling continues and can create problems in daily living. Here, we will look at types of anxiety, how anxiety affects the brain, and how to treat this common experience.
Types of Anxiety
Panic attacks happen very quickly and, according to the American Psychiatric Association, involve a surge of thoughts relating to intense fear and physical responses. Imagine a nervous thought you have experienced. Perhaps it was a fearful moment in life that caused you to pause or try to protect yourself. Maybe it was a slowly growing scenario, such as, “This is a perfectly safe airplane ride, but what if something happens?” Maybe it came out of a scary moment like, “I was bitten by a dog when I was young and your pet is scaring me now.” This response to that fear may be the start of a panic attack.
Sometimes nervous feelings come out of a fear of being judged by others. That fear of judgment may manifest as the thought that others will “judge me when I give a speech, speak up in class, or even just talk to others.” This could be the start of a social anxiety fear response.
Fear may also trigger a behavioral element of protection in cognitive thought. “I felt scared and out of control. If I control something such as checking the light switch or washing my hands multiple times, this will reduce the risk of something bad happening.” The fearful thought gains more control every time the behavior occurs, which can start an obsessive-compulsive response.
Post-traumatic stress response
Fear may come from a real or perceived response, including a life-or-death situation such as a trauma experience. For instance, “I was in a car accident in which I felt like I could have died. Every time I drive a car, my body has a physical response.” What makes this response so powerful is its fragile nature, and how something as simple as a similar smell or sound may trigger the emotional memory. The intense fear response may be classified as a post-traumatic stress response.
What Happens When Someone Experiences Anxiety
Fear and anxiety serve as adaptive responses to situations of threat to one’s well-being or survival. The nervous feeling or anxiety you experience is a fear-based response to a stressor; it is why we have survived and thrived as a human species. The emotional and behavioral response occurs when a threat is experienced in the autonomic nervous system through the senses, including the visual, auditory, olfactory (smell), somatosensory (touch), or interoception (awareness of any changes within the body’s system).
When the message comes in from the autonomic nervous system, it is sent to the central nervous system and activates a “fight, flight, freeze, or fold” response. The response includes an increase in arousal, body system activation, and specific behavior patterns that help people cope with the adverse or unexpected situation. The physical response by the body is to flood stress hormones such as cortisol, which leads to reflexes, heart rate activation, and circulation.
Additionally, the information travels to the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system that controls sexual and aggressive behaviors, perceives fear, sets off a response, and is essential in the formation of emotional memory. The signal continues on to the hippocampus, affecting behavior inhibitions, spatial learning, and memory processing. Only after this activation will the message finally get to the prefrontal cortex, or the executive functioning area of the brain. Higher thinking and problem-solving capacity can occur by cognitively rethinking the trigger and the stress response. However, the physiological response of the body occurs well before the cognitive thought process.
How Can We Treat Anxiety?
Despite its prevalence, anxiety is a treatable mental health issue. To cope with anxiety, individuals will need to learn to distinguish actual fear from perceived fear. They will then need to learn to alter the brain and body response through various treatments. The focus of treatment includes facing the fear and reprocessing the experience. Effective treatment for anxiety may include cognitive behavioral approaches that allow for reworking of the anxiety response while connecting it back to the cognitive thought. In combination with medication, reworking the cognitive thoughts with reducing the physiological symptom may be highly effective. The use of self-regulatory strategies such as meditation, relaxation, and biofeedback are also effective in the treatment of anxiety. These approaches teach methods of controlling the body’s activation and reducing the stress response.
The human experience is filled with moments of nervous feelings, and it is important to understand that the anxiety response serves to protect the body and brain. Anxiety is a fear-based response to a stressor that rouses us to action. To deal with this anxious response, it is important to find methods that calm the activated body, reduce the worried brain, and incorporate active methods toward emotional well-being.
“Anxiety — Let’s Talk Facts. American Psychiatric Association,” American Psychiatric Association, 2007, www.healthyminds.org/multimedia/anxietydisorders.pdf