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Anxiety is a basic human emotion
Anxiety, fear, terror, panic, nervousness. There are a lot of different names for this emotional system but at the root of it, they are all talking about the same thing. Anxiety is a basic human emotion. It is fundamental to our survival. However, too much anxiety, or anxiety not in proper portion to a given situation, can be troubling.
Biology of Anxiety
First a little biology. The physiological components of anxiety can be traced back to our parasympathetic and sympathetic systems within the central nervous system. This is a system that we share with most vertebrates. It controls many aspects of our body but for the purposes of this article we will focus on its relationship with anxiety.
You may have heard of the “fight or flight” response. The sympathetic nervous system can stimulate this response. It increases blood flow, and respiratory rates, and sends signals to our glands and muscles to prepare to fight back or run away. Think back to our ancestors. It likely helped very much to have an evolutionary response that triggers all kinds of psychological reactions helping them to protect themselves from danger. If you encountered a hungry lion looking for a meal you would want to be able to run away as fast as possible.
Overactive fear response
In modern society, we usually do not have to out-maneuver predators. Now we get anxious about a deadline, an important decision, an interpersonal conflict, or a big presentation. But our biology is still governed by these same systems. It perceives all of our modern-day anxieties as FEAR and activates the same systems (to varying degrees).
Most anxiety disorders can be understood as an overactive fear response. That is your sympathetic nervous system is responding to a less significant threat as if it were a life-and-death situation. It is normal to be nervous about a big presentation but it is not helpful if your body goes into fight or flight mode.
Emotionally, most of us feel the sympathetic nervous system response as anxiety or fear. It is helpful to be scared of the hungry lion. Paring the fear emotions with our nervous system response helps us to identify danger. Being scared of dangerous things literally saves our life.
One way to think about anxiety is to reframe it as arousal. Arousal can be both exciting and anxiety-producing. Psychologically they are quite similar. Anxiety therefore can help motivate and excite us. In the example above, the fear response helps us have the energy and motivation to escape a hungry predator.
In less extreme situations such as being nervous about a big presentation, anxiety can help you prepare for it. Anxiety can help you stay engaged and focused. It might be helpful to think about it on a continuum. Too little anxiety and we do not have motivation or energy to do much of anything. Too much anxiety and we cannot think clearly or sit still. With anxiety, as with many things, finding the right balance is essential.
Overview of Anxiety Related Mental Health Conditions
Again, anxiety can be a helpful emotion. Being scared of dangerous things keeps you alive. However, too much of it can cause problems. Of course, this is a broad overview of anxiety. Anxiety can manifest in many ways and is a prominent feature of disorders including:
Generalized anxiety disorder
Specific phobias (heights, airplanes, germs, closed spaces, spiders, etc)
Social anxiety (social phobia)
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
Separation anxiety disorder
With all of these issues anxiety manifests a bit differently. At Houston Therapy, our anxiety therapists and counselors specialize in working with a wide range of anxiety related issues including panic disorder treatment, OCD treatment, just feeling overwhelmed by your anxiety, and more. If you think you might have an issue with anxiety, please contact us to talk about anxiety treatment options with our anxiety specialists.