Everyone has anxiety…it’s no big deal.
There is both truth and lie to this statement. Of course, anxiety is a normal and healthy part of life. Anxiety is a common name we use for our personal experience of the activation of our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS).
I’m not sure if the SNS is taught today in “therapist school”, but I can confirm that I don’t recall learning about it in my DSM-III-R class at the University of Illinois School of Social Work way back in 1990. Of course, we didn’t have the opportunity to study any disorder very deeply when you are trying to cover the entire DSM in 17 weeks.
I first learned about the SNS when teaching an Intro to Psych class for Lake Land College, and I became quite interested. I enjoy learning about the biology and neurology behind our behaviors…I want to know what is goading me to do something that isn’t always rational. For those who are not familar with the SNS, please allow me to explain.
The SNS increases our arousal, awareness, and escape abilities when we face a dangerous situation. Initially, sensory and perceptual information about your current situation is sent to the Amygdala in your brain for a determination as to whether it is a serious threat or not. If it is determined by the amygdala to be a threat, then the SNS is activated resulting in the release of several hormones (Adrenaline, Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone, Adrenocorticotropic Hormone, and Cortosol) and neurotransmitters (Norepinephrine). These powerful chemicals enables and supercharges your “fight or flight response”.
For example, you are walking across a parking lot at night and suddenly hear footsteps getting louder and quicker. You feel your heart begin to race, your eyes dart and your ears focus to determine the exact location of the threatening sound. You feel adrenaline being released, sweating begins, your breathing quickens, and tension and energy builds in your leg and arm muscles. These are they effects of the SNS, and they are designed to energize you to survive whatever danger you are experiencing.
Without the SNS we would not survive very long in this old world.
However, what if our Amygdala learned that something was a danger, that really wasn’t? Or, what if it was a danger only during a specific time and place, and it was safe at all other times?
Let me offer another example…a friend of mine bought a new car that was painted a color unique to that model and year (you know, those weird color cars that no one really likes). One night she had a car accident that was very dangerous and very scary, and she totalled her car. After she was healed and ready to drive again, she decided to get the same make, model and color car that she unfortunately totalled. However, when she went to the dealership and saw the car’s color she had a full-blown activation of her SNS, or as it was termed, a Panic Attack.
Within seconds of seeing the car’s color her heart was racing, blood pressure was up, she was sweating, her stomach was nauseous, and she was hyperventilating. In addition, she was filled with an incredible sense of dread, her mind was flooded with images of her wrecked car, and all she could think about was getting away from the dealership.
In discussing the situation with my friend, she stated that the make and model of the car didn’t bother her, but seeing “that color” was all that it took.
Let me ask you, is the color of a car dangerous? Of course not, but in this case, and many similar ones out there, something as benign as a color was matched up with a traumatic experience, learning took place, and now the color has the same effect as the trauma. Does this sound familar? It should. Think back to your Intro to Psych class and what you learned about Ivan Pavlov or the story of Little Albert; what is happening is Classical Conditioning.
There are many opportunities for problematic Classical Conditioning to take place resulting in inappropriate anxiety reactions. Sometimes these reactions are severe enough to result in the diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, such as a phobia or even part of the symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
So, going back to the beginning question posed by the myth, yes – everyone has anxiety and it is a normal and important part of life in specific situations; however, when anxiety reactions take place without danger or when they are tagged inaccurately to a non-threatening trigger then the anxiety is a big deal because it is causing unnecessary problems for the individual and typically the family as well.
When this happens, the sooner someone engages in therapy with specific techniques designed to retrain the Amygdala the better. I typically use a combination approach involving education, cognitive assessments of beliefs, and in-context experiential learning of corrected beliefs. More on that in later blog posts.
Below is an info-graphic that you can freely share on your own blog or social media outlets to help debunk some of the myths about anxiety disorders.
Treatment can work…there is hope!
Have a Great Day!