Originally written for
Anxiety can appear so abruptly and with such intensity, that it makes you feel as if you were attacked by an outside force. So to better understand and demystify this emotion let’s have a closer look at the neuro-physiological pathway on how you create anxiety.
Anxiety can get stimulated by something “scary” you notice in your environment, such as a loud noise at night, an unexpected bill or a mal-tempered boss. The emotion can also get sparked internally by a dream, a negative thought or by a body sensation. Sometimes these external or internal stressors can be so sudden and fleeting, that you are not even able to consciously compute them, although they have been registered by your nervous system. All you notice is that you are anxious for no apparent reason.
The anxiety triggers activate the amygdalae, an almond-shaped group of cells that are part of the brain’s limbic system and play a significant role in emotional responses and long-term memory. The amygdalae, which have been also called “the anxiety-switch,” evaluate whether the information it receives could be related to any dangerous or threatening events of the pasts. The more memories are associated with fear and anxiety, the more readily the amygdalae raise alarm.
Stress Hormone Release:
As soon as your brain considers a situation potentially perilous, the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland stimulate the release of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol to prepare your body for an appropriate flight, flight, or freeze response.
Stress hormones increase your heart rate, breathing, blood sugar level, perspiration, and blood circulation to the peripheral muscle. As a result you feel hot, sweaty and tense; your heart is pounding and you are breathing faster; you may start trembling, shaking or even experience chest pain. These physiological reactions can appear so sudden, uncomfortable and overwhelming, that they themselves can trigger additional anxiety. This is the reason why people can become more afraid of their own anxiety, than of any potential external threats.
This neuro-physiological pathway is designed by nature to protect you from danger and keep you safe. In other words, anxiety is a normal feeling with an important purpose. However, when even the smallest triggers cause the anxiety pathway to regularly overreact, you are dealing with an anxiety disorder.
Some the typical symptoms of anxiety disorders are:
- Excessive worry and mind-racing
- Overwhelm and trouble concentrating
- Over-analyzing past or present challenges and ruminating about the worst-case scenario
- Hyper-vigilance and trying to micromanage others and your outside circumstances
- Feeling powerless and unable to make decisions
- Growing difficulties with work and relationships due to insecurity, doubt, and fear
- Seeking distractions in addictive behaviors, such as gambling, eating, sex, or work
- Self-medicating with alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs
- Trouble falling asleep or waking up in the middle of the night feeling wired and unable to relax again
- Physical symptoms such as high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, chronic pain, and weight fluctuation
The distinguishing factors between a normal level of anxiety or an anxiety disorder, are whether your feelings causes you suffering, dysfunctional behavior and interferes with your daily life.