Hello and welcome to the fun part! If reading about Anxiety makes you anxious, I highly recommend you keep going. The biggest dragons guard the best treasure!
Depression and Anxiety share some very common roots, especially in the biological arena. If you already read Part That One, you will notice some repeat of information, but press on anyway, please. Repetition is key to learning! If you didn’t read it, I recommend reading it anyways because learning is cool and helps your brain! If ever there’s something that you didn’t quite get (either it’s more complicated than I estimated, I explained it poorly, or my sources suck…) don’t hesitate to bring it up in the comments and I’ll do my best to address it!
This blog will focus more on Generalized Anxiety but will touch on other disorders such as Panic Disorder, OCD (though technically in its own category), Social Anxiety, and PTSD.
Like Depression, the causes of Anxiety are not terribly well known, not concretely. Anxiety is a complicated interplay between your genetic predisposition and your conditioning. As with Part 1, we’ll be focusing on biological contributors to Anxiety, helping you to pin down what your symptoms are, why they arise so that you can have the background knowledge needed to combat them!
We’ll build up to what the genetic predisposition is with a little background. As usual, here’s a lovely CrashCourse on Anxiety disorders.
Anxiety can be most simply thought of as overactivation, or inappropriate activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System, or your “fight or flight or freeze“. The SNS is a part of the Autonomic Nervous System, designed essentially to keep you alive. It’s the job of the SNS to prime you to take the appropriate course when facing something that might possibly kill you. In my own personal observations, it seems most of us with Anxiety are stuck in the “flight or freeze” stages, choosing to withdraw or simply do nothing in the face of our hyperarousal, though the “fight” certainly comes into play quite often. This article from MentalHelp.net gives an excellent break down of the physiological changes that occur when your body is primed for danger. (It also goes on to discuss other factors, like the psychological side, so if you wanna get a jump on that, go for it! We’ll be discussing it here later.) The dysregulation of the HPA Axis also plays a role in anxiety disorders, adding to a feedback loop of stress activation.
Putting it into context, this system is excellent for dealing with short-term, immediate, physical threat, but is poor for long-term stressors that are mostly in the psychological realm. Your body’s system was built to watch out for snakes, and big cats and rival tribes and predatory birds. Not deadlines at work, or a rough patch with your husband, or current social dynamics like high school.
But why does Anxiety seem to grip others to the point of us locking ourselves away in our homes, or being rendered unable to speak in front of even friends, or being so on edge that we pick fights and push our closest allies away?
Most who experience Anxiety disorders are theorized to be predisposed to such things. It is thought that our genetics wires regions in the brain such as the Amygdala and the Hippocampus to be more sensitive, more easily aroused than in other people. The amygdala and the hippocampus play a vital role in the Limbic System of the brain, which regulates your emotions and motivations- basically how you feel and you believe you should respond to any stimuli. Just recently, scientists found specific neurons lighting up in the hippocampus of mice. This opens the door for more ways to look at the influence different parts of the brain have on mental health.
In those predisposed to Anxiety, it is thought that our brains are more likely to perceive something as threatening to begin with- even if it is not. This heightened perception of threat then triggers the sympathetic response and you get primed for a fight that may not even exist. This is a part of temperament, which as previously stated is now believed to be physiologically based. (In personality studies this range of stability is referred to as neuroticism. That’s another show though.)
The lack of true threat can be part of what I believe makes Anxiety so crippling. There’s nothing really for you to run from, or fight. So instead you choose dysfunctional behaviors to address the desire to act. Possibly the worst part of Anxiety is that these dysfunctional behaviors often reinforce the original fear- making the Anxiety disorder worse. Avoidance behaviors are more psychological than physiological, so they deserve their own show.
Like with many disorders, the balance of neurotransmitters and hormones is key. Studies have found Anxious people to be low in both serotonin and GABA, both inhibitory neurotransmitters that are associated with stable mood and allow the brain to slow down after periods of excitement. It is suspected that dopamine regulation also plays a part in anxiety, but there is little concrete on it yet. As you probably guessed, too much norepinephrine plays a large role in Anxiety disorders, contributing to the unpleasant symptoms associated.
Other diseases can present anxiety-like symptoms, or trigger them. Diseases like Heart disease, Diabetes, Respiratory disorders, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma, or diseases that cause chronic pain like IBS or Fibromyalgia.
Your diet and current metabolic state also can influence how you feel.
Certain nutrients are vital to the formulation of proteins, hormones, and neurotransmitters, which the body requires to function. When certain nutrients are not present, your body lacks the ability to form these vital chemicals. This is a pretty neat 5-minute video primer on how your diet affects your brain.
The science of diet and nutrition is so complicated that there are at least hundreds of schools of thought on the “best” way to eat. (Just walk into the food and lifestyle-related sections of Barnes and Noble and you get a glimpse.) That being said, I’ll do my best to give you enough information in future posts that you can make more educated decisions for yourself, or discuss with your doctor about your diet! (But please, always listen to your doctor before you listen to me. Cuz I’m not a doctor.)
Another contributor can be considered behavioral in nature but has dramatic biological consequences.
I know. I cried too. I love my coffee. But the link between caffeine and anxiety is too strong to be ignored, in fact, some argue that Anxiety Disorders can be induced by caffeine alone. This awesome (and sad) article from BeBrainFit.com breaks down all the ways caffeine is wrecking your body, sip by sip.
Even food allergies can cause anxiety! This was something I stumbled on quite by accident. I noticed one day I would get flushed and agitated when drinking Code Red Mtn Dew, but not regular. The only difference really was Red Dye 40. (Which led me on a multi-month journey of experimenting with foods with Red Dye…) Now I know there’s a high correlation between my anxious symptoms and Red Dye 40. (You don’t have to be crazy. You can get tested for food allergies. Don’t endanger your life, please.)
While not a machine, in reality, the human body can be viewed as one in the sense that we are an amalgamation of finely tuned systems that can be thrown out of balance quite easily, and it can be easy to slip into the mentality that the biological reasons for our depression our out of our control completely. While we can’t change the bodies we have been given, we can, however, learn how they specifically need to be taken care of. The responsibility of our reactions to this situation we find ourselves in is in our own hands. It being inherently more difficult for us does not give us an excuse to give up and let our anxiety rule us- it gives us the challenge to grow stronger! And I know we all can do it.
Next week we’ll come back and talk specifically what medical science has come up with to combat these deficiencies in our systems, and what we can do in our daily lives to minimize the negative outcomes.
Domnu stiffened. “Games are serious, my pet. As serious as life itself, for that too is just a game.”
T. A. Barron -Merlin; The Lost Years
Please note that some of the links provided may lead to websites that want to sell you products. I am not affiliated with any of these websites and am not attempting to push you towards certain brands or products. I have simply used those links for the information they contain.
Again, this blog is for informational purposes. I am not a professional. It should not be an exclusive source to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease.