Anxiety: A Three-Part Series

Part One: The Physiological Chain Reaction  

By: Chris Anderson Psy.D.

Treating Anxiety in Therapy

Many people elect to treat their anxiety with anti-depressants and/or benzodiazepines such as Xanax when they are dealing with panic attacks. These can be very effective for many people. That said, we get an equal number of people who would prefer to treat their anxiety without medications or treat their anxiety with counseling in addition to medication. When treating anxiety in counseling there are two main ways to treat it therapeutically. There are reactive tools and proactive tools. Reactive tools are utilized when the anxiety flares up and is actively going on. The goal is to reduce the intensity of the anxiety and try to get it to dissipate. These are useful tools to have and can keep anxiety from escalating to the point of panic attacks for many people. As a precursor to discussing the reactive and proactive tools of anxiety, it is important to have a thorough understanding of the chain reaction that occurs with anxiety. In the next two articles, we will spend time talking about reactive tools that help mitigate anxiety and proactive tools, which are designed to keep anxiety from manifesting in the first place.

The Mechanics and Physiology of Anxiety

In order to learn how to master anxiety, it is helpful to have an understanding of what is actually transpiring in the brain and body. Generally, the origin of most anxiety stems in our cognitions and thoughts, which will be discussed in more detail in the third article about proactive tools. At the start of anxiety, people are often thinking about or perceiving things in ways that produce some anxiety. We find that in many cases, people are not even consciously aware of what they are thinking about as anxiety starts. Many of us are daydreaming or on autopilot working on tasks and thinking about things at the same time. As these thoughts occur, they are activating the emotion center of the brain, the limbic system. This part of the brain is what creates the sensation of emotions, in this case, anxiety. Often such thinking may only be producing a low-level anxiety feeling, which may not even be perceived consciously.

The Fight or Flight Reaction

The production of feelings of anxiety in the emotion centers of the brain, in turn, activate an old evolutionary mechanism called the fight or flight reaction. When humans were not on the top of the food chain, this mechanism helped our species survive. Most people are familiar with the heavy dump of adrenaline we get when something or someone scares us abruptly. This reaction was designed for one of two purposes: fight or flight. Eons ago when the saber-toothed tiger jumped out from behind the bushes, we experienced this reaction so we could kill the tiger and eat well that night, or we ran and hoped to live to talk about it. Unfortunately, evolution has not kept pace with humanity. Where we largely do not need this fight or flight reaction, it is still operating inside of us.

The Slow Drip

As we are thinking about the various situations and events in our life and activating the emotion of anxiety at that low level, another reaction is occurring. Those feelings of anxiety are triggering the release of various stress hormones into the bloodstream such as adrenaline and cortisol preparing us for fight or flight. Unlike the terror of running into the saber-toothed tiger that release an immediate and heavy dump of chemicals, most people are experiencing a release that is more analogous to an IV drip. Often people are sitting around thinking about these life stressors for a while (5-15 minutes) and experiencing a slow drip of chemicals into their bloodstream which is taking their body from a state of relaxation and putting it into a state of arousal as it prepares for fight or flight. Because it is occurring at a slow drip, many people are not even aware this is occurring until their body reaches a saturation point with these chemicals and their body has flipped over into that state of arousal.

The Snowball Effect

After this slow drip has been occurring for a while and a person’s body is reaching that saturation point, they start to experience some physical symptoms. This can include tightness in their chest, rapid heart rate, muscle tension, difficulty catching their breath, or even some shakes, sweats, or trembling. Often it is these physical symptoms that finally catch a person’s attention. They become aware of these physical symptoms which seem to have come out of nowhere because the chain reaction was occurring below their conscious awareness. Often because these symptoms are perceived to be of unknown origin, the person becomes alarmed and starts to produce more anxiety, which in turn releases even more chemicals into the bloodstream feeding and perpetuating the process. If you think of anxiety on a scale from 1 to 10 with 10 being severe (panic attack), often people have already reached a 5 to 6 by the time they become of aware of some physical symptoms and start dumping even more gas on the fire. When a person is already at a 6 out of 10, a little extra gas can get you very quickly to an 8, 9, or 10. This is often what happens with panic attacks and why most people feel like they “come out of nowhere”.

In the next article, we are going to discuss reactive tools for anxiety which are intended to help you catch it early and keep that 5 from ratcheting up to a 10. Reactive tools are focused on trying to force your body from that state of arousal back into a state of relaxation.

If you have anxiety and are interested in talking with one of our psychologists or psychiatrists about treatment options, please call us now at 763-416-4167, or request an appointment on our website: WWW.IPC-MN.COM so we can sit down with you and complete thorough assessment and help you develop a plan of action that will work for you. Life is too short to be unhappy. Find the peace of mind you deserve.

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