Anxiety Explained

Anxiety is a natural and important part of our system, it enhances motivation and increases vigilance, but excessive anxiety hinders one’s ability to cope with stress. Too much anxiety impedes learning, decision making and decreases exploratory behaviour in proportion to the intensity and duration of one's experience.  

When reflecting on our relationship with fear / anxiety it can be useful to consider the differences between some of the common terms we use to describe our experience.

Anxiety can be described as apprehension, distress, or uneasiness in response to fear of threat or danger, clearly a psychological state.

Stress is the physical/psychological pressure or strain experienced when one thing exerts force (pulls or pushes) on another. This can relate to physical as well as psychological states.

Tension is the act or state of stretch or strain, referring to a more physical experience.

The problem with Anxiety

Although, as we’ve seen, anxiety has a useful role to play in protecting us, ongoing ‘chronic’ anxiety can be harmful if not attended to. Travarthen and Molloch discuss clearly the physical and psychological damage that can occur, ‘hormones released during prolonged stress are debilitating to a wide range of somatic functions, including system activity, mental performance, growth and tissue repair, reproductive physiology and behaviour.’ Sapolsky (1992) Cited in S Malloch & C Trevarthen (2009)

People who suffer with anxiety (Anxiety Disorders): a few facts

  • Anxiety is the most common form of mental distress in the UK affecting around 9.7 per cent of the population (recorded in 2007)
  • Sufferers struggle to make a distinction between real fear and perceived fear (or irrational fear)
  • People with anxiety disorders find anxiety difficult to consciously control
  • People suffering with anxiety find their ability to regulate and self soothe can be poor

What is happening on a physiological level?

It can be helpful to know what is happening on a physical level.

We feel anxious when we sense threat to any or all parts of our system (i.e. mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual. This triggers our stress response in the hypothalamus, a part of the brain which is responsible for keeping daily rhythms consistent (i.e. hunger, warmth, sleep etc.).

The Hypothalamus reacts to try to maintain balance, stimulating the adrenal gland to release hormones, the main one of which is called cortisol. This temporarily puts the body’s other systems ‘on hold’ (organs, immune systems etc) in order to deal with the crisis, whilst giving extra energy (glucose) to the body/brain system to manage the situation.

After the ‘crisis’ is over, the body returns to normal and cortisol is reabsorbed into its receptors or dispersed by enzymes. But if anxiety continues for prolonged periods of time it can have a damaging effect on the body and brain, particularly the hippocampus and the limbic system.

Long term exposure to cortisol can damage the cells of the hippocampus which is involved in the forming, organizing, and storing of memories. It is part of the limbic system, and is particularly important in connecting emotions and senses, such as smell and sound, to memories.

Limbic system is involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those that are related to survival. Such emotions include fear, anger, and emotions related to sexual behaviour. The limbic system is also involved in feelings of pleasure that are related to our survival, such as those experienced from eating and sex.

So, as we can see, prolonged periods of stress and anxiety can have an effect on our ability to remember past experiences/information, can change our emotional responses, influence our eating patterns, and can effect our sexual experience.

Factors that help to reduce cortisol levels            

  • Engaging in the creative arts         
  • Massage therapy         
  • Laughing and the experience of humour        
  • Regular dancing        
  • Intense or prolonged physical exercise
  • Good nutrition        
  • It would also be useful to drink plenty of good clean water

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