Over 21 percent of American adults between the ages of 18-64 will experience diagnosable Anxiety Disorders in a given year (over 42.5 Million people). To give you some perspective, that is more than the number of people who subscribed to Netflix™ in 2015. What is anxiety really though? Where does it originate and how does it impact us physically and mentally? To answer this, we must start within the brain and learn about the way we, as humans, are designed to manage dangers that we encounter.
When we encounter what we perceive to be a threat (this can be physical, emotional, etc.), a portion of our brain called the Amygdala begins to trigger a series of reactions. In these reactions, the Amygdala sends out changes in chemicals and stress hormones throughout the brain and into the body. Think of these chemicals and hormones as the brains way of sending out a “fire alarm” to the body to be on HIGH ALERT. Instant changes within the body that occur include those you’d associate with a classic response to fear; rapid heartbeat, sweating, increased blood pressure, and a burst of adrenaline. These “messages” from the brain and changes in the body go out before you’ve even consciously registered that you need to be afraid of something. Your body has prepared you to “fight, flight, or freeze” to protect itself with these changes, in an effort to keep you safe.
Have you ever had difficulty remembering what exactly happened during an episode of high anxiety? This is also related to how our brains function. When our stress hormones are increased and the “fire alarm” has been sent out, our hippocampus can become “flooded” with the stress hormone called Cortisol. Our hippocampus (the part of the brain that regulates emotions and is associated with memory) then struggles to organize the details of the experience. Timeframes can become hazy and our general orientation to the event may be fragmented. This is the main reason why traumatic events may be difficult to recall clearly.
During “fight, flight, or freeze”, our brain takes it upon itself to shut down some of the less necessary bodily functions, while heightening others. Our senses are kicked into hyper-drive during this state, particularly our sense of smell. This is due to our brain sending messages about smell straight to the amygdala for interpretation, bypassing its usual route through the thalamus, which still processes sight and sound during anxious states. If information that passes through our amygdala (the portion of our brain that triggers fear response) is deemed to be a legitimate threat, it “tags” the information as significant. This explains why smells often evoke stronger memories than our other senses.
Now, you may be wondering what all of this is information is for and how it relates to YOUR anxiety. We were once primitive beings who faced very different forms of danger than we do now. As hunter/gatherers, we needed to keep ourselves safe from a variety of predators, as well as from other humans. “fight, flight, or freeze” was exactly the response we needed from our brain in order to maintain our safety when faced with the possibility of being eaten by a large animal. Our anxiety levels rose quickly and returned to normal fairly quickly when the threat was resolved. The difference now is that we are not faced with being eaten large animals on a daily basis. The situations which bring about our fear response in modern-day life are significantly more prolonged and, in turn, our bodies response to these prolonged outputs of stress hormones is profound. Anxiety impacts our physical well-being in numerous ways and can be responsible for health issues such as chronic headaches, gastrointestinal problems, weight loss or gain, and even heart disease. Anxiety can also lead to efforts to self-medicate and result in co-occurring substance use disorders. Work, family-life, financial issues, and relationships come at us from every angle and we seldom get a break from feelings of anxiety in one of our life domains.
So, now that you’ve learned how anxiety originates, I bet you’re wondering what to do about it. With individual counseling, your counselor and you will teach the reasoning behind various reactions within their body AND with how to apply a wide-variety of anxiety-management and reduction skills.
About the author: Natalie Gomes MA, LPCS, LCAS is an individual counselor in Wilmington, NC. She also offers telehealth (aka online therapy) to North Carolina residents. Does your anxiety feel overwhelming? Call her today at (910) 216-0194 for a free telephone consultation or to schedule an intake assessment and let’s start working towards life feeling more manageable for you.