Anxiety: what causes it, according to a psychologist

Anxiety is a complex and common mental health condition that affects millions of people around the world. It affects people in different ways, with some individuals finding the anxiety overwhelming and interfering in their daily lives.

How can you spot when it becomes a problem? And what causes anxiety in the first place? Here’s everything you need to know.

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What is Anxiety?

In essence, anxiety is an emotional state of nervous apprehension that often involves negative, worrisome thoughts and physical nervousness. While anxiety is often focused on a specific upcoming event or challenge, it can sometimes be experienced more diffusely as a general unease about the future.

To analyze it more deeply, anxiety can be broken down into thoughts, feelings and behaviors. For example, you think you might make a fool of yourself in a meeting; that makes you nauseous; and this affects your behavior, so you decide to lose the match.

In the short term, dodging the encounter quiets your thoughts and feelings, but this strategy is likely to fuel your anxiety in the long run. This is a key feature of anxiety: It can result in avoidance, which perpetuates the anxiety.

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What causes anxiety?

An anxiety attack often begins with negative thoughts about an impending situation. For example, worry that an exam is too difficult and ends in failure; or that something will go wrong during a flight. These expectations can cause the brain to trigger a fear response, which releases hormones, especially adrenaline, that activate the sympathetic nervous system. This prepares your body to survive a threat to fight, flee or freeze.

If you are faced with a really dangerous situation, it could save your life. But you can think of unhealthy anxiety as a false alarm, triggering your body in a way that’s out of proportion to the situation.

A pounding heart and adrenaline-pumping muscles aren’t much use during an exam or a flight. Other causes of anxiety include past traumatic experiences that leave you in a permanent state of fear; certain medications that trigger fearful thoughts or your fight-or-flight response; and medical conditions, such as hyperthyroidism, that can play havoc with fear-related hormones.

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How does it feel?

Depending on the intensity of your anxiety, you usually feel uncomfortable and uncomfortable, largely due to the physical symptoms. These can include a fast heartbeat, sweaty palms, dizziness, trembling, upset stomach, nausea, and more.

Some people with chronic anxiety issues find the physical sensations associated with anxiety particularly troubling and, of course, this can then fuel their anxiety (imagine someone who is anxious about public speaking and is startled by shaking hands and butterflies in their stomach ).

Mentally, anxiety can also trigger a flood of fear-related thoughts and out-of-control worrying. Combine the physical symptoms with racing thoughts, and a common end result is a strong urge to get out of or avoid the anxiety-inducing situation as quickly as possible. This is what makes avoidance as a strategy so attractive, even if it is counterproductive in the long run.

Anxious man sitting on the plane

People with anxiety can be prone to catastrophe. Photo: Joe Waldron

When does anxiety become a problem?

It’s completely normal to experience anxiety from time to time. In fact, in moderation in appropriate situations, anxiety can be beneficial (as boxing trainer Cus D’Amato said, anxiety is like fire: it can kill you, but, under control, it’s an invaluable source of warmth. and the kitchen).

For example, if mild anxiety about a job interview forces you to do some preparation, it’s better than just showing up and calling it quits. And if your mild anxiety gave you an adrenaline rush during your interview, it might help you think fast.

Anxiety becomes problematic when it gets out of control (you’re so anxious during an exam that you can’t concentrate, for example) and/or becomes chronic and overwhelming.

A specific red flag is when anxiety starts leading to an avoidance cycle. For example, you may get so wrapped up in flying kinks that you never travel abroad. If your anxiety is so intense that you start avoiding situations, not only is there a risk of your life shrinking, which could make you miserable, but it also means you’ll never get a chance to discover that you can cope better. than you think about the situations that concern you.

Avoidance can also take the form of using unnecessary coping strategies to mask your anxious feelings such as getting drunk to settle your nerves. The same unnecessary process applies to this form of avoidance masking. While it may bring short-term relief, it risks fueling your anxiety. Conversely, dealing with your anxieties can be difficult in the short term, but it’s often the best route to alleviating them.

Is anxiety a psychiatric disorder?

If a person experiences significant anxiety for more days than for more than six months, about a number of different things, then they could be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.

There are also types of anxiety disorder with a more specific focus. For example, if a person has a lot of anxiety specifically related to social situations, they could be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder; and if a person is often anxious about having a panic attack, it is diagnosed as panic disorder.

Various phobias, such as agoraphobia (fear of places where escape is difficult), are also considered forms of anxiety disorder. Other psychiatric conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), used to be considered forms of anxiety disorder, but psychiatrists now treat them as categories in their own right even though they involve anxiety .

In PTSD, the traumatized person is often left in a super alert state, as if they are perpetually on the verge of a fight or flight response. In the case of OCD, a person gets stuck performing compulsive checkups or behaviors as an ultimately counterproductive way to reduce their feelings of anxiety.

Are some people more prone to anxiety than others?

The genes we inherit and our experiences in life combine to shape our personality traits, and in turn, these traits can influence our vulnerability to anxiety. Above all, people who score high on the neuroticism personality trait tend to experience frequent ups and downs in mood, negative emotions such as shame and guilt, and worry a lot that they are especially prone to severe anxiety.

But there are other traits that are relevant as well. For example, people who are more confident (an aspect of the broader trait known as agreeableness, which is associated with less stress and fewer relationship problems) are often less prone to anxiety. There is also some evidence to suggest that extroverted people tend to be less prone to anxiety, especially in a social setting.

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