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What is Anxiety?

blog Feb 26, 2018

Anxiety has become a catchy buzz word these days. Everyone seems to "have anxiety." What does that even mean? Anxiety is the most common mental illness worldwide and most common in women as well.  It affects more than 4 million Americans each year and often is a lifelong struggle for individuals. Given the right tools, it's also one of the easiest mental illnesses to treat... even without medication. But let's get on the same page about WHAT exactly is anxiety. 

As a doctor who was trained in medical school, I think of diseases by the biopsychosocial model meaning that for any given disease, including mental illness, you look at the biological factors, the psychological factors, and the social factors.

Biological Factors

Biologically speaking, anxiety is, first and foremost, a physical feeling within your body. According to the research of Antonio Damasio, famous neuroscientist and creator of the somatic marker hypothesis, he proved that every emotion starts with a bodily sensation. Whether that’s depression or anxiety or panic or what have you, it actually starts with a physical sensation in your body. And if you’ve experienced anxiety, you probably agree with that because there’s so many times in life we feel like we can’t control how we actually feel in our body.

You know, we get cut off in traffic or we have a grouchy sales clerk, or we just ran into our in laws or some other stressful experience and we have a very anxious feeling in our body. Getting in touch with exactly the biological feeling of that is paramount. Now, in terms of other biological processes going on, what exactly is causing that feeling?

Physiologically, anxiety is an over activation of neuro chemicals responsible for the fight or flight response, most common of which are norepinephrine and cortisol. Most of the time anxiety comes from either a history of trauma or learned behavior or other highly charged emotional moments from childhood. Thus, it makes sense that these anxious responses are formed.

However, another common neurotransmitter that plays a part in anxiety is actually dopamine. And you may have heard of dopamine because you think about it in terms of reward response or the addiction model. However, dopamine on overdrive can actually cause anxiety, because dopamine essentially is the future-oriented neurotransmitter meaning it helps you get to the future, and if you have anxiety, you are overly focused on the future, right?

Being anxious equates to you worrying about the future (not always, but often). You are thinking about the future. You are planning for the future. You are worrying about the future, and so that is an overdrive of dopamine. Also, the same things that increase dopamine--lack of sleep, for instance-- can also worsen anxiety. 

Psychological Factors

Now let’s talk about the psychological factors. With psychological factors, we get into family history, your own psychological history, and your current roles in society.  Specifically, any sort of transition in your life is going to cause anxiety. This is everything from minor transitions, like coming home from work, or the huge transition of having a baby or starting a new job altogether. Any sort of change or transition is a psychological factor for anxiety. 

Social Factors

Now when we talk about social factors, this is a little bit easier to be aware of. This is when we talk about the actual environment or the social life that we live in that’s causing our anxiety. For example, like the holiday season or being around stressful people. This could also be the environment of your home, so if you’re in a very dirty or chaotic or messy environment, then that could definitely lead to anxiety. 

Also, consider the people around you, your current relationships, the state of your job or family life. These can all affect  how you experience anxiety.

Anxiety is multifactorial and as such, each individual experiences anxiety very differently. However, the treatment for anxiety tends to be similar for all. If you'd like a little extra help with anxiety, sign up for my video training here. I'd love to help out more!




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