We will all at some times in our lives experience anxiety in one form or another. Some of us may experience physical as well as emotional symptoms, but generally these symptoms will be associated with a stressful situation or specific time in our life – perhaps a challenging work interview, an exam, moving house, bereavement or relationship problems. In fact almost any situation that is out of our normal routine has the potential to raise our anxiety levels and this is to be expected.
We have an innate ‘Fight Flight’ which kicks in when we are faced with any unusual or potentially dangerous situation. This Fight flight response sits deep without our primitive brains, the original part of our brains that were formed millions of years ago – the limbic system.
This part of our brain was developed to protect us from wild animals and tribesmen – modern day living, although challenging, is nowhere near as physically demanding or dangerous as the lives lived by early man. However our brains, although hugely complex and developed, still hold the primitive part, powered by our Amygdala. Our primitive and sometimes inappropriate behavioural responses are controlled by our ancient Hippocampus, linked closely with the Hypothalamus which is responsible for regulating the chemicals in the mind and body.
For today’s modern situations we are equipped with an intellectual brain, making us different from our caveman ancestors. This gives us the power to consider things rationally – our rational prefrontal cortex can weigh up the level of fear associated with a given situation. At times, the fight flight response will take over, simply to protect us. The need for our instincts to protect us from wild animals in the jungle (unless you are Bear Grylls) is somewhat less that it used to be, but those parts of our brain are still available and accessible.
For a whole range of reasons, those of us who are affected by long periods of anxiety, or those who find it impossible to think positively and rationally in a situation which is clearly not life-threatening, have got some ‘rewiring’ to do, we’ve got things muddled in our brain and our primitive mind, our ‘chimp’ is taking over, running riot. It’s as though we are always on red alert, constantly looking over our shoulder for wild animals or danger, which in today’s society we don’t need to be doing. We need to learn to calm our brain, putting our ‘chimp’ back into his cage!
Rationally you know that you will be ok to leave the house and cross the street, enter a shop, go to a social event – but these seemingly normal things for those with an anxiety disorder can become cripplingly debilitating, creating an environment of negativity and fear. It can result in a complete inability to live a normal life and enjoy those normal things you used to get such pleasure from.
So when do normal anxiety and nerves become more of a mental health problem?
- When you are worrying all the time, worrying about general day-to-day things that previously would not have preoccupied you, even worrying about worrying
- When physical and psychological effects of anxiety make enjoyment of your life difficult or challenging e.g. panic attacks, obsessive checking and rechecking, inability to leave your home
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is something that, although sometimes difficult, can be diagnosed by your doctor – you may be fearful, but not about anything specific. And depending on the kind of problems you experience, you may be diagnosed with a ‘specific anxiety disorder’ for example a phobia or a panic disorder, you may be prescribed medication or you may seek Talking Therapies.