In The Beginning

Every single person who has ever developed an anxiety disorder has done so because at some point in their lives they began to worry and continued to do so until a part of their brain called theamygdala’ altered its behaviour (more on this later). This is an extremely important piece of information that you must understand – WORRY ULTIMATELY CAUSES AND PROLONGS ANXIETY PROBLEMS. Worry isn’t just something that people decide to do one day, there are reasons why some people worry more than others and these factors can include genetics, life experiences and stress.

Genetics is a broad scientific term that encompasses everything within our biological make-up but what I’m specifically referring to here is the inherited temperaments, which result from our genetic predisposition. It is worth noting that the vast majority of anxiety sufferers share very similar temperaments; I like to think of these people as the sensitive souls – of which I include myself. There are of course those people who develop anxiety disorders (eg PTSD) where temperaments were not necessarily a contributing attribute but the traumatic event itself was so ‘significant’ that it caused a flood of worry in a very short space of time.

What are temperaments?

Temperaments ultimately determine our ‘nature’; how we ‘tick’ and what makes us ‘tick’. Temperaments are innately encoded in our DNA and are fuelled by complex energy systems that affect our behaviour. It is interesting to note that the vast majority of anxiety sufferers share similar temperaments, however, it isn’t these temperament’s themselves which can cause anxiety disorders to develop but more the personality and character traits resulting from them that leave people particularly vulnerable to life’s situations and stresses. For example if you are ‘caring’ and ‘sensitive’ by nature then you are more likely to take things to heart and over think certain situations, likewise, if you are ‘creative’ and ‘intelligent’ you are more likely to think deeply for extended periods of time and neglect those much needed mental pauses.

Common shared personality and character traits amongst the anxiety sufferer;

  • Intelligent
  • Imaginative
  • Creative
  • Sensitive
  • Caring
  • Sympathetic
  • Empathetic
  • Diligent
  • Responsible

Life experiences must come into the picture because ultimately there has to be some sort of stimulus that leads people to worry. Although significant life experiences and stresses such as the death of a loved one or surviving a traumatic accident can leave a person vulnerable to prolonged worry, more often than not, it’s the worry from the not so obvious ‘lesser’ stressors in life that cause people to develop anxiety disorders – how I’m going to perform at a work meeting? What if nobody likes me? What is this strange physical symptom I have? etc. Also, what might be ‘significant’ to one person might not necessarily be significant to another – think of the soldier who develops PTSD but his comrades are able to continue their life’s in relative peace despite witnessing the same event. However, the vast majority of people who develop anxiety disorders have no deep seated causes at all – people can worry over the most trivial of things! The late great pioneer in nervous illness Dr. Claire Weekes called these people the ‘insidious worriers’.

Common list of life experiences;

  • Parents or other family members who suffered from panic attacks or nervous breakdowns
  • Alcoholism or addictions within the family of origin
  • Emotional, verbal or physical abusive interactions
  • Perfectionist parents that left you feeling ‘it was never good enough’
  • Overprotective, critical or controlling parents
  • Chaotic family atmosphere
  • Surrounded by extreme anger or rage
  • Trauma or fear of separation or loss
  • Family conflicts leaving one feeling unstable
  • Family environments where you were not encouraged to share feelings or thoughts
  • Parents that was never present physically or emotionally

Stress must come in to the picture but what exactly is stress? Stress can be thought of as the response our body has to a stimulus (externally or internally) and it can take three forms; physical, chemical and emotional. Physical stress is the stress our bodies experience during injury, trauma and accidents. Chemical stress includes disease, viral and bacterial infections, high or low blood sugar levels, hormone imbalances and even hangovers. Finally, emotional stress can be considered the most contributing stress that lead people to worry and common examples include money problems, relationship issues, death of a loved one, confidence and self-esteem issues.

Worry then comes into the picture…

How does worry cause an anxiety disorder to become established?

All of the nasty physical and mental symptoms of anxiety are initially triggered by the amygdala, a pair of small almond shaped structures located in the ‘emotional’ part of the brain called the limbic system. Normally, the amygdala operates at a ‘calm/normal’ level and when we’re faced with an anxiety-provoking situation, the amygdala switches to ‘anxious’ mode and, depending on the level of threat perceived, initiates the ‘fight or flight’ response within the body; rapid heartbeat, sweating, shortness of breath etc. follow. Once the threat has dissipated, the amygdala reverts to ‘calm/normal’ mode. The effects of the ‘fight remain or flight’ response may for a short time (due to stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline) but eventually also fade as the body returns to a ‘resting’ status. You see the thing is is that ‘worry’ is fear-based and as I’ve just mentioned the amygdala processes fear so every single worrisome thought you have arouses the amygdala and it responds accordingly!

Constant bombardment of worry causes the amygdala to malfunction and begin to trigger the fight or flight response at inappropriate times and therefore an anxiety disorder to develop – there is no mystery here, it’s as simple as that!

Exposure to prolonged periods of worry can cause the amygdala to malfunction and become altered in such a way that it establishes ‘anxious’ as the new ‘default’ level. The amygdala has ‘learned’ anxious behaviour through constant worry. The amygdala now overreacts to situations that would normally have low levels of threat and does so with an exaggerated response by initiating extreme fight or flight mechanisms, normally reserved for potentially life-threatening scenarios. The individual subconsciously adopts an ‘anxious’ disposition and an anxiety disorder is born.

To put simply – worry causes anxiety to become disordered and stopping worry brings anxiety back to normal appropriate levels. Simple but not easy.