False Alarm

Anxiety is an unpleasant feeling that is typically associated with uneasiness, apprehension, fear or worry. It is a natural reaction to stress.

Most people cope with many causes of anxiety, including demanding jobs, rocky relationships and financial worries. It is normal and necessary to feel fear and stress.

The brain’s anticipation of threats is a survival mechanism which mobilizes us to escape from or avert danger. When we sense danger two important things happen. A brain circuit runs through the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex, the layer of the brain that regulates consciousness, thinking and decision making. Another circuit involves the amygdala, the unconscious part of the brain, where threats are registered.

The activation of our primal survival instinct increases blood pressure, heart rate and alertness before the thinking cortex is fully aware of what is happening as we go into this “fight or flight mode”.

However, there are those who do not always recognize the causes of their anxiety, which leads them to experience the physiological and psychological symptoms of a perceived danger without necessarily being conscious of what it may be.

For example, a patient of mine who had always been comfortable with flying one day, out of the blue had a panic attack on a flight, resulting in such anxiety that he never flew again.

As I probed, he could not think of anything out of the ordinary happening on that flight- other than that he vividly recalled the passing away of his grandmother.

I informed him that the mind responds by association. The amygdala records sight, sound, smell, touch, and even a harrowing memory of loss and it is capable of sending the body into high alert before a person can consciously process the stimuli.

Just as the triggering of an alarm system in a building sets hearts and minds racing, so the activation of our internal security network can create thoughts of doom even if there is no real danger involved.

This is the first article in a series of six in which I will cover the causes and treatments of the five recognized anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), phobias, panic disorder, and post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD).