I remember when I was a small child and my mum or my uncle would take me out to one of my hometown’s parks or to the shopping centre. For some reason, I so often experienced an unexplainable fear and even dizziness and the terror that I might faint. I also had the feeling I couldn’t walk in a straight line. But no one noticed. Whenever I went to an indoor show or a classical music concert where people were sat on their seats and all they had to do was watch something and not move, talk or most importantly, look at me, I was fine. Little did I know what the problem was as it never occurred to me it was a problem at all. I knew I was shy and self-conscious and in my head that was the reason for my fears of crowds.
After I hit puberty, those irrational fears and the following symptoms became amplified and I started to seek for some scientific explanations. By reading and talking to different people I finally found out about agoraphobia. As the name suggests, agoraphobia is basically the fear of open and/or crowded spaces. The most important steps, I think, in dealing with an anxiety is first of all realising you have one and identifying the type.
Anxiety disorders are very common worldwide (with about 2% of the population suffering from them) and they are characterised by the pathological expression of fear. The most common types of anxieties are: agoraphobia, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social phobia, specific phobia, generalised phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder.The manifestations as well as the characteristics and the severity of anxiety disorders differ from person to person. Moreover, some anxieties can derive from other anxieties, like panic disorders. No wonder it took me a while to figure out what was going on with me. Here’s the thing and I would like people who suffer or have suffered from anxiety disorders to think about it: we often do not realise we have an anxiety (because we believe the causes underling the symptoms are different, like lack of self-confidence, heart attacks, pure coincidence etc.) or we just refuse to admit the reality.
Although anxiety has been mentioned in scientific literature since the 16th century, it wasn’t until the 1800s when it started to be considered a mental illness. Before that, people attributed physiological and hormonal causes to anxieties.
Modern medical advances like fMRI and PET have made possible the discovery of the major role of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in anxiety formation and development. Through a cascade of hormones released by this three-structure system, the brain responds to stress by activating the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. This, in turn, determines physiological changes which lead to exaggerated fight-or-flight reactions.
We shouldn’t pin all the blame on the hypothalamus though, as it only obeys two other structures: the amygdala and the hippocampus (which respond to the information processed in the neocortex). In this case, the amygdala and the hippocampus act as antagonists – the amygdala has a positive effect on the activation of the HPA axis, whereas the hippocampus suppressed this activation. This is how the normal fight-or-flight responses are regulated. Nevertheless, in patients suffering from anxiety disorders, hippocampal damage due to continuous exposure to cortisol (probably as a result of amygdala hyperactivity) leads to more cortisol being resealed from the adrenal medulla, thus the symptoms of anxiety becoming even more pronounced.
Several treatments, ranging from anxiolytic medications (benzodiazepines, alcohol, serotonin-selective reuptake inhibitors etc.) to psychotherapy have been developed in order to heal anxieties. Psychotherapy aims to get the patient accustomed to the stressor (the stimulus that produces anxiety) and, at the same time, to assure them of the extremely low risks potentially posed by that stimulus. In time, the fear of the stressor would disappear as the neuronal connections involving the stimulus processing would be altered.
I know I put between brackets alcohol as one of the many treatments against anxiety disorders. Indeed, due to its stimulating effects on the main inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA. Essentially all drugs that can activate this neurotransmitter are considered anxiolytic, meaning they are able to treat anxieties. Keep in mind, though: This is should not be an excuse for people to become alcoholics 😛
In my case, the anxiety went away by itself, or maybe it was just me who kept on going to crowd places and telling to myself nothing bad was ever going to happen; which, to be honest, is a bit unrealistic – bad things can actually happen, but we should try to prevent them, instead of fearing them to the point when we would refuse to leave the house.
Hopefully, this article gave you a clearer idea about what triggers anxiety disorders and also made the anxious ones more confident that their fears don’t have to last forever.
Bear et al., 2006. Neuroscience – Exploring the Brain. s.l.:Lippincott Williams & Wilkins pp. 665-670
Picture by Damaris Pop