The what, how and why of anxiety
Anxiety is a response that prepares us to cope with threats in our environment. For instance, if you are walking in the woods and you encounter a bear, anxiety will prepare you to respond to that potential threat. This is known as the flight or fight response. This response entails a number of physiological changes that take place in our bodies in order to take instant action to deal with a threat. In that way, anxiety helps us to respond to a threat in order to protect us from a dangerous situation, thereby constituting an adaptive response that is vital for our survival.
However, this flight or fight response may be activated even in situations where the threat is not imminent or not even real. For instance, anxiety may be triggered because you are going to a job interview. In that case, it could be that the idea of being interviewed may feel threatening for you but that does not threaten your survival. Nonetheless, we react in similar ways to real, potential or even imagined threats. That is why human beings do experience anxiety from time to time and that is, as discussed, an adaptive response to threat. However, if anxiety becomes overwhelming because of its frequency, intensity or duration, that is likely to have a harmful effect on you. The experience of excessive anxiety has been categorised into different “disorders” and include, among others: panic attacks, social phobia, generalised anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. These experiences of anxiety can be extremely frightening, exhausting and debilitating for the individual.
So how do anxiety issues develop? Most research suggests that these difficulties arise as a result of genetic, psychological and environmental factors. This means that the development of anxiety problems is believed to arise as a combination of having inherited a propensity to develop anxiety, your ability to cope with it and the experiences of difficult situations or events.
Anxiety issues can be treated effectively with psychotherapy. There are many different therapeutic approaches to target anxiety. These include for instance mindfulness, which focuses on accepting your feelings and learning how to be in the moment, rather than ruminating about the past or worrying about the future; cognitive behavioural therapy which focuses on the relief of distressful symptoms; and psychodynamic therapy which aims at identifying the roots of anxiety by targeting unconscious processes that contributed to its development. Although there is no consensus about which therapeutic approach is the best to treat anxiety, I believe that as the cause of anxiety is multi-layered, its treatment should contain a combination of therapeutic approaches to address that complexity.