In today’s western society we rarely face the same, immediate threats to our lives that our ancestors did. These have been replaced, though, by more subtle but generally more prolonged and sustained stressors such as confrontational work or personal relationships, deadlines, debt, social pressures, identity issues and many others. Our primitive brains (of which the amygdala is a part) are not evolving fast enough to cope with the change in our environment and lifestyle. In contrast to the dangers our ancestors faced, which could be escaped from by running away or fighting a predator, today’s sources of stress are often ever-present and so the effect builds over time. The long-term impact on the nervous system is considerable and this can eventually become so exhausted that we become hypersensitive – like being on constant red alert. This can also occur as a result of a single traumatic event, or a series of them, such as the loss of someone close, an illness, or a relationship or marriage break-up.
Once our nervous system becomes exhausted and we become sensitised like this, we are like a coiled spring and the slightest thing can seem to cause disproportionate reaction both in our minds and bodies. We start to tremble, our heartbeat becomes irregular and we have difficulty breathing. Our thoughts become muddled and we often feel a sense of dread that we just can’t explain or attribute to anything specific. This is the nature of anxiety disorder, when you become constantly afraid without knowing why. Eventually we become afraid of the anxiety itself, since the physical symptoms and thoughts that come with it are so unpleasant and frightening. Some experts revert to this as ‘throwing gasoline on the fire’ since fearing anxiety is a form of resistance and what we resist persists.
And that is the turning point – once we start to fear anxiety, we become locked in a cycle of fear-adrenaline-fear. Our constant fear of being anxious puts us in a state of tension which confirms to the amygdala that there is, in fact, something wrong. In response it does its job and releases more adrenaline to help us deal with the threat, which serves instead only to increase the intensity of the symptoms and perpetuate the cycle.
What is a Panic Attack?
Many people with anxiety disorder will have experienced one or more panic attacks, I had hundreds and they ranged from under a minute to several hours, sometimes following each other closely, other times as isolated incidents. A panic attack is a truly terrifying experience, whether it’s your first or your hundredth. They are way beyond an episode of anxiety in that the symptoms are extremely intense, but more because they come with an absolute conviction that you are about to either go mad or die, or both.
The truth is, neither of these things is going to happen. Despite how terrifying they are, panic attacks, just like anxiety itself, are actually quite harmless. They are simply the body’s way of disposing of all the excess adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones that have been coursing through your body as a result of the sustained anxiety you’ve been experiencing.
This is not to say that anxiety disorder will always lead to panic attacks, this is not the case at all. Many people experience anxiety disorder for years without experiencing a panic attack. Some experience occasional panic attacks with no obvious anxiety preceding them. How each of us processes and responds to stress varies enormously and this is reflected in the symptoms presented in a person’s anxiety disorder. Factors such as regular exercise, meditation, general relaxation and lifestyle choices such as alcohol, nicotine and sugar consumption all play a part in your ability to cope with anxiety disorder.
A person’s ability to cope with stress and anxiety stems from supporting traits such as confidence but more specifically self-esteem. There is a very deep connection between anxiety and shame, so if a person has an inherent lack of self-esteem or has the opinion that they are in some way unworthy or not good enough, this can make anxiety very prevalent in their lives but also very difficult to cope with. As such these people are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder, since they are not equipped with the tools necessary to prevent it.