What is anxiety?

Anxiety is our body’s reaction to the perception of danger and events that are important to us. It is like an internal alarm system that prepares us for danger and helps our body prepare for it. For example, alarm allows you to bounce off a speeding car. Anxiety helps us pull ourselves together and do our very best when preparing for exams. Anxiety is something that everyone experiences. There are no people who do not experience anxiety!

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Fear can be caused by various situations, such as dangerous animals or contempt and criticism of others. In addition to dangerous situations, people experience similar anxiety about imaginary dangers. In this case, the stressor is the potential danger and thinking about it, such as anticipating a public appearance or the thought of seeing a big dog on a country road.

When we feel threatened, the body reacts in a way that gives it the best chance of successfully coping with the situation.

In a situation of danger or imaginary danger, various automatic reactions of the body are possible: fight, flight, freeze.

Fight or run! In case of imaginary danger, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, preparing the body for fight or flight. You will know this by the fact that your breathing and heart rate are quickening, your muscles are tense and your body is ready to respond quickly.
Freeze! When we feel that we are in a situation from which we cannot get out and from which we cannot fight, the body reacts with inhibition. As a result, a person physically, mentally and emotionally slows down and perceives what is happening to him more dull.

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Feelings of anxiety can manifest themselves in many ways – for example, a restless feeling in the stomach, tension in some parts of the body or head, nausea, palpitations, anxiety, fear of losing control, fear of death. 

All humans are capable of feeling anxiety in response to stress. At some periods of life, in certain situations or places, it is felt more or less. For example, some anxiety before an exam, a sporting event, a trip, or a birthday is more or less familiar to everyone.

In the course of evolution, anxiety has played an important role in helping people to pull themselves together in order to prepare for flight. She helped to survive by focusing on finding a way out of the situation, stopping activities that were insignificant at that time and activating the body for running. Both in real and imaginary dangerous situations, changes occur in the body that increase anxiety. The body releases substances, especially in certain neural circuits, that provide information about the situation and allow the body to respond to it. 

A dangerous situation affects the functioning of different areas of the brain – in particular, the exchange of information in the amygdala (this area is central to the expression of emotions) and the functioning of the cerebral cortex (including thinking and decision making). With the involvement of the tonsils, a rapid reaction of the body to the threat begins. This means that the hypothalamus is activated, hormonal changes occur, heart rate and blood pressure increase, muscles tighten. As a result, a person is ready to cope with the external situation – he is ready to either run or fight. And these changes occur before the information reaches the cerebral cortex and the person can realize what is happening. Serotonin, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and norepinephrine are the most commonly associated neurotransmitters (substances that mediate the exchange of information between nerve cells). Gamma-aminobutyric acid has an inhibitory effect on the exchange of information between nerve cells. Serotonin and norepinephrine act more slowly and act on the neural circuits that mediate mood, stress and anxiety responses. 

The development of anxiety-related parts of the brain and how they continue to function depends on various life experiences, childhood development, and genetics.

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Anxiety becomes an anxiety disorder when it starts to interfere with daily life, when it is very severe or lasts for a very long time. For example, if a person cannot sleep due to anxiety or avoids anxiety situations completely, anxiety can be caused even by going to school or work, or even eating. according to various studies, the frequency of anxiety disorders during life is manifested in 10-28% of people.

In particular, we may suspect an anxiety disorder if:

  • anxiety or fear is very strong and often
  • anxiety or fear is very strong
  • when anxiety or fear almost never goes away and it is very difficult to relax
  • when a person starts avoiding anxiety situations
  • when anxiety significantly interferes with daily life
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