Anxiety is a tortuous, confounding, painful, and often unrelenting demon that I wouldn’t wish on the worst of souls. If you’ve had any exposure to it, I can cut the descriptors. Really, there’s only one question here: “How the heck do we manage it?” For my money it’s all about learning, because, believe me, what you don’t know will hurt you…
And when I crossed the threshold of acceptance I knew my only relief option was to continue to learn about why and how anxiety presents in me, and how to effectively manage it.
Understandably, over time we get so gummed-up by offsetting low self-regard, masking symptoms, ducking assorted punches, people pleasing, quick-fixes, and more. And before we know it, poof, finding reason – solutions – in the midst of the unreasonable becomes a lost cause.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
My gut told me it was time to do a piece on the fundamentals of anxiety. In fact, we’re going to make it a two-parter. Let’s handle the biological goodies this go-round and come back with how to manage next week.
Keep in mind, I know anxiety like the back of my hand. Okay, being a counselor helps, but more so wrestling with it for fifty-five years. And I’ll tell you something else. When my anxiety hit full-throttle in my late teens, having no clue as to what was going-on, all I wanted to do was learn about it and know I wasn’t some sort of psycho-freak. I figured I’d reason-out the relief factor after I had a decent grip on what I was dealing with.
State & Trait Anxiety: Why You Need to Know
Everyone experiences anxiety; however, exactly what kind – state or trait – is important to know. State anxiety is anxiety that’s generated by a particular situation. For instance, when someone gets the “yips” when speaking to a group, it’s very likely state anxiety.
Trait anxiety is more pervasive in that it can be considered a personal characteristic, shall we say a (non-defining) component of who one is. A trait anxiety would indicate said person is typically uneasy about unknown outcomes. Actually, our public speaker may really have trait anxiety.
Can you see why it’s important to know what type of anxiety you have? Here, given my first panic attack hit when I was nine, and anxiety remains a part of my life, there’s no doubt I have trait anxiety. That being the case, I long ago gave-up on the notion that my anxiety may go away. It won’t.
And when I crossed the threshold of acceptance I knew my only relief option was to continue to learn about why and how anxiety presents in me, and how to effectively manage it. Period.
What about you? State or trait?
The Stress Response System
How can any of us accept and manage our anxiety circumstances if we don’t know what’s biologically taking place? We can’t! So what say we dig-in and see what we can see…
Oh, my reference for what you’re about to read is a great article, “Understanding the stress response,” from Harvard Health Publishing. It’s a good read, so I’ve linked at the end.
If you’re enduring your share of anxiety, how well you know the manifestations of the fight/flight response. The Harvard crew refers to it as the stress response and it’s the dance floor when it comes to anxiety.
The stress response begins in the brain. When we’re confronted by what we may think is danger, our eyes, ears, or both send the scoop to our emotional processing center, the amygdala; which interprets the news. If it perceives danger (which doesn’t necessarily make it true), it immediately sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, which serves as a command center.
Always ready to roll, the hypothalamus sends a dispatch to our adrenal glands directing them to activate the sympathetic nervous system. The adrenals begin to pump epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream, bringing on instantaneous and significant changes, such as increased heartbeat, blood pressure, and rate of breathing. Add to that extra oxygen being sent to the brain, blood being forced to the muscles and vital organs, and glucose and fat being released into the bloodstream from storage.
Whole lotta’ shakin’ goin’ on.
On to the HPA Axis
Well, the initial surge of epinephrine ultimately subsides, but if danger is still perceived the hypothalamus activates the second component of the stress response system, the HPA axis. The initials? Hypothalamus, pituitary gland, adrenal glands. And now it’s all about hormones, as the HPA axis puts the pedal to the metal on the sympathetic nervous system.
Here’s the flow: The hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which zooms to the pituitary gland, triggering the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH flows to the adrenal glands, which release big, bad cortisol, the “stress hormone.” So now the body, at DEFCON 1, is fully amped-up – defended.
Where Does It All End?
When danger is perceived to be gone for good, down go cortisol levels. It’s then that our parasympathetic nervous system hits the brakes on the stress response.
Now, you may be thinking…
“But wait! Many of us endure chronic – trait – anxiety so it’s very much an ever-present demon. I mean, who’s to say a danger won’t be perceived thirty minutes later, again activating the stress response? And what happens to my body with all those chemicals, especially cortisol, polluting it 24/7?”
Precisely! That’s why we’re setting the table by learning about the biological foundation of anxiety. And next week we’re going to get into reasoned management.
In the meantime, review what you just read and see if you can spot some intervention points. Okay?
Come on back.
Those all important links…
“Understanding the stress response,” from Harvard Health Publishing
Hundreds and hundreds of Chipur mood and anxiety disorder-related titles