Anxiety Disorders: When the Brain’s Rescue System Goes Wrong

Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their lives. It’s a normal, healthy emotion that we all feel when our brain interprets a situation as potentially dangerous and harmful, whether that be you addressing a crowd or expressing your feelings to that special someone. Anxiety can come in different levels, ranging from the classic, uncomfortable, butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling to a full-blown panic that knocks the breath out of your lungs. The one good thing about anxiety for most people though, is that it is usually temporary. It dissipates as soon as the brain ascertains that there’s no real danger. However, this is sadly not the case for everyone.

For some people, anxiety can be an almost perpetual state, or it can be so severe and debilitating that it affects their ability to function in everyday life. People who experience this are said to suffer from an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders, like anxiety itself, can also take on a myriad of forms. Sometimes, the same kind of anxiety disorder might even present differently in different types of people. A general symptom in all people with anxiety disorders is relatively frequent anxiety attacks or panic attacks, in the case of people with panic disorder. Panic attacks differ from anxiety in that they occur suddenly, are often severe and always seem to come out of the blue.

It has been hypothesised that hyperactivity in the amygdala could be a causative mechanism in anxiety disorders. The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure in the brain that alerts the rest of the brain when a threat is present, which leads to the triggering of an anxiety response. Therefore, anxiety can be said to be an over-amplification of the body’s internal security system.

Common types of anxiety disorders are:

Generalised Anxiety Disorder

We all regularly worry about several things. This normal kind of worry is ephemeral, and usually disappears in the face of reassurance. With GAD sufferers, the worry seems to never go away. Generalised Anxiety Disorder is characterised by excessive day-to-day worrying that feels perpetual. There is persistent nervousness, feeling of restlessness or irritability, and the distinct feeling of the mind going blank.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

OCD, as it is often called, is defined by obsessions which are often coupled with compulsions. So, for example, a person who has excessive intrusive thoughts about the germs all around them may feel compelled to wash their hands as many times as they can. Compulsions may also have no logical link to the intrusive thoughts that accompany them. For example, a person might feel compelled to flip the light switch on and off for a fixed number of times because they have obsessive thoughts that if they don’t, their family members would die.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

This occurs in people who have experienced significant trauma in their lifetime. The level of severity of trauma required to trigger PTSD varies from person to person. People suffering from PTSD experience symptoms such as flashbacks, disturbing intrusive thoughts, and nightmares.

Social Anxiety Disorder

This disorder causes extreme fear and agitation in social situations. It’s different from the usual run-of-the-mill shyness or stage fright. Social settings that trigger anxiety attacks in people with this specific type of disorder can range from a small gathering of friends to meetings or parties. Symptoms include excessive sweating, trembling, or difficulty speaking in social situations.

Panic Disorder

As mentioned earlier, panic disorder is characterised by frequent panic attacks. Panic attacks are not the same as anxiety attacks. They are sudden, severe and seem to have no trigger whatsoever. During a panic attack there’s an increase in heart rate, trembling, sweating, a strong sense of danger even in the absence of a threat of any kind and a feeling of derealisation. People with this disorder are likely to develop a fear of situations or places in which they had experienced a panic attack in the past.

Illness anxiety disorder (or hypochondriasis), separation anxiety disorder, and all the different specific phobias are some other common types of anxiety disorders. Selective mutism is a complication arising from an underlying anxiety disorder, usually social anxiety.

If you’ve identified some of these symptoms in yourself already, it’s not all bleak. Even if you don’t have access to professional help, there are a number of things you can do to manage your anxiety.

Grounding techniques are the most common and one of the most effective techniques for dealing with anxiety or panic attacks. They help you intentionally reorient yourself to your surroundings in order to divert the attention of your brain from the rush of anxiety. A common grounding technique is trying to identify:

  • Five things you can see
  • Four things you can feel
  • Three things you can hear
  • Two things you can smell and
  • One thing you can taste.

Breathing techniques can also be helpful. The most important thing is to be self-aware, and to reassure yourself that though it might be tough, you’re capable of getting through it.

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