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What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural response the body produces in order to let us cope with events that require of a fast and safe response.
When facing a challenging situation, our freeze-fight-flee response arouses. This response has a neurobiological path that starts when a perceived-as-dangerous situation is processed in our brain and reaches the hypothalamus, which will cause epinephrine to be released and trigger the final segregation of cathecholamines and cortisol, the stress hormone, which regulates de Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS).

Once this process has begun, the SNS will develop a series of physical symptoms that we usually associate with fear, danger or anxiety. This association depends on the stimuli we are facing. If it is a wild bear we are seeing, we will probably associate it with ansiedaddanger, but if we have these feelings before an exam, we will be talking about anxiety.

Therefore, we can deduce that even though anxiety is a universal response, it is a subjective process because there are no universal ansiogen stimuli, but the background of the person, conditioned learnings and the personal fears or emotions of each one are what will finally make us more prone to be scared of certain situations.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

Because anxiety not only involves physical reactions but also emotional response, we can divide the symptoms into two categories:

1. Physical reactions:

-Rapid heartbeat or tachycardia.
-Sweating.
-Dizziness.
-Tight or painful chest.
-Numbness or tingling sensations in fingers and toes.
-Sensation of unreality and floating.
-Loss of peripheral vision (tunnel vision).
-Heavy legs.
-Stomach sickness.
-Mydriasis (dilation of pupil)
-Hyperventilation.

All these symptoms prepare our body for a rapid response, and their physiological effect is to release as much energy as possible to your muscles, so it is prepared and strong enough to face a rapid response for a potentially dangerous situation.

2. Emotional and cognitive reactions:

-Thoughts: Usually, before experiencing a stressfull event we tend to overthink about it. For example, if facing a public speech, a common thought is: “What if I blush and everyone notices it?”. It has been proved by scientists that these thoughts create a positive feedback: the more I think, the more anxious I feel, and the more anxious I feel, the more I think.

-Fear: As said before, anxiety is caused and modulated by our experiences of the world and induced by fear. It is normal, then, to feel fear. These negative emotions have also been identified as a nutrient for thoughts and cognitive reactions.

Is anxiety a bad thing?

Psychologists and other scientists have shown that anxiety not only is not a bad thing, but even it is positive in certain situations where we are supposed to do our best. For example, when having to take an exam, evidence shows that the best performance is in subjects that show a little anxiety, because the biochemical processes explained before arouse our brain and increase our outcomes.

Despite this fact, when anxiety becomes the chronical baseline of our daily life, the person can develop anxiety disorders that may require psychological and pharmacological treatment or the person can perceive stress or burnout. None of these states are adaptative or good for our organism; for example, high blood levels of cortisol interfere with the immune system.

Anxiety disorders are: anxiety attacks or nervous breakdowns, phobias, Obssesive-Compulsive disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and others. These often co-occur with depression or mood liability. Treatment usually involves Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and certain drugs as benzodiacepines.

How can I face a nervous breakdown?

Usually, when people have high levels of anxiety, they perceive themselves as nervous. When these tension has been held for a long time, our body may choose to restore its natural behaviour by setting off a nervous breakdown. This is a very normal reaction and at least 1/10 people will experience it more than one time in their life.

The common feelings are: palpitations, trembling, chest pain, sense of facing death, fear of having a heart attack, paresthesias (loss of movement and feeling of one or more parts of the body), migraine, severe headache, fear of being insane or dizziness. These symptoms can last from ten minutes to several hours, and even though they really are unpleasant, they are not dangerous.
The best ways to face them are to keep in mind that it will go away soon and to focus on breathing slowly and deeply. It is normal to be exhausted and to cry afterwards.

If these panic attacks happen often or the fear of having them again is interfering with your life, you should contact a mental health professional as soon as possible.

 

Sources: AnxietyBC, Medical News Today, AnxietyUK 

Image: Gustavo Dagnino

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