Updated: May 3
Anxiety is something that everyone has experienced before, and it can come in many different forms. For example, your heart could be racing before giving a speech, or your hands could be shaking before an interview. Often, anxiety accompanies the anticipation of a stressful event, dread over unknown outcomes, and other mental health struggles. Our brains deal with it without interfering with our daily functioning.
For some people, though, anxiety can be overwhelming and interfere with everyday life. While anxiety is a natural response to perceived danger, anxiety disorders occur when the anxiety response is triggered inappropriately or excessively, causing significant distress and impairment in daily functioning. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition globally. Many types of anxiety disorders exist, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder (SAD), to name a few. According to the cognitive-behavioral model of anxiety disorders, anxiety is generated and sustained by negative thought patterns and unhelpful behaviors. Due to this framework, those with anxiety disorders frequently perceive unclear or neutral circumstances as hazardous and react by worrying excessively or avoiding them. These behaviors can eventually become established, creating a vicious cycle of anxiety and avoidance that feeds the disorder.
Many factors can lead to a person getting an anxiety disorder. One example is genetics. Research indicates that individuals with a family history of anxiety disorders are likelier to develop these conditions. People with shyness, behavioral inhibition, or trauma are more prone to suffering from lasting anxiety too. This fact can explain why introverts aren't as outspoken as extroverts. Everyone has concerns, but the people who let that anxiety stay and control their minds fall into the void of an anxiety disorder. But how does an anxiety disorder work inside someone? What happens inside the head when people are faced with things that trigger their anxiety?
Let's take a deep dive into our brains. The brain is a complex organ with many systems working together to let you live. The one system we want to focus on is the limbic system. The group of brain regions called the limbic system play an important part in memory consolidation, learning, and emotional processing. The amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, cingulate gyrus, and prefrontal cortex are some of the key elements that make up the limbic system. In the development of memories and spatial orientation, the hippocampus is vital. The hypothalamus is involved in controlling core physiological functions such as hunger, thirst, and sleep, whereas the thalamus distributes sensory information to other sections of the brain. While executive processes like planning, decision-making, and social behavior are managed by the prefrontal cortex, attention and cognitive control are performed by the cingulate gyrus. Individuals with anxiety disorders will have heightened activity inside the limbic system since it is responsible for most of the emotional processing in their brains.
The amygdala, a small almond-shaped brain structure, is responsible for processing emotions, particularly fear. The amygdala sends signals to other brain parts, including the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, to initiate the body's stress response. This response involves the release of hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which cause physiological changes, like increased heart rate and respiration, dilated pupils, and increased blood pressure. Your fight or flight response stems from this, so you feel restless when there are threats. This system may overreact in patients with anxiety disorders, causing an excessive and extended reaction to imagined dangers. Anxiety is regulated by the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain involved in decision-making and emotional control. The prefrontal cortex can find it hard to control the amygdala and other vibrant centers in individuals with anxiety disorders, generating a loop of increased anxiety.
Depending on the anxiety disorder someone has, the brain will attempt to deal with it in different ways, resulting in various physical symptoms. For example, suppose someone has a generalized anxiety disorder where they're continuously worrying over things. In that case, their amygdala won't be as connected with their brain to determine the importance of a specific stimulus. This issue leads those individuals to have a more challenging time distinguishing what's annoying and what's worrisome. They'll be irritated more quickly and have difficulty concentrating on tasks in life.
Another type of anxiety disorder is called panic disorders, where people get panic attacks. These attacks are episodes of intense anxiety where adrenaline rushes throughout your body, and your heartbeat starts to get much quicker. On the outside, you would breathe very fast, and your body would be more tuned to your surroundings. With any anxiety disorder, if that anxiety gets triggered, the first thing their brain would do is fire up their body to work against the feelings of fear. It takes a lot to calm someone down when they're feeling anxious, so the best thing you should do if you see someone showing anxiety symptoms is to assist them with their struggles and tell them you're there for them.
Psychotherapy and medicine are often utilized together for the treatment of anxiety disorders. One of the most successful forms of psychotherapy for anxiety problems is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). The primary objective of CBT is to recognize and alter the unhelpful thought patterns and dysfunctional actions that contribute to anxiety. The symptoms of stress can also be managed by drugs such as beta-blockers, anxiolytics, and antidepressants.
As the outcome of a mix of biological, psychological, and environmental factors, anxiety disorders are complicated challenges. Research has discovered several essential elements that influence the onset and maintenance of anxiety disorders, even though the science behind these diseases is still developing. Future anxiety disorder treatments may be more efficient and personalized with continuous study and innovation.
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