What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is an adaptive reaction that everyone experiences from time to time, including animals. Anxiety alarms us of situations and circumstances that involve some threat of danger, and it enables our body to respond in ways that help keep us safe. This response is a useful survival mechanism, helping us to avoid or even prevent dangerous situations, and is known as the Fight or Flight Response.
Murphy and Leighton (2009) suggest that anxiety is problematic when it becomes “a fearful apprehension that is mainly out of proportion to external circumstances accompanied by autonomic hyperactivity symptoms such as palpitations, sweating and other indicators of the body’s alarm system”. So anxiety is a normal part of the human condition and is experienced by everyone at one time or another. It is only when anxious reactions become disproportionate to the situations and circumstances faced that it is viewed as problematic.
The Fight or Flight Response
The fight or flight response is a primitive inbuilt response to stress or threat. Also referred to as hyperarousal or an acute stress response, it occurs in both animals and humans, enabling us to deal with threatening situations by preparing us for action. This is very useful if attacked because our bodies will be highly alert and strong, allowing us to either stay and fight the enemy, or flee as fast as we can.
When the fight or flight response occurs, the sympathetic nervous system goes into action, releasing the hormone adrenalin into the bloodstream. This causes the heart to beat faster to deliver oxygen to the muscles, which become tense and ready for action. Breathing becomes more rapid and shallow, increasing oxygen supply to the blood. The digestive system slows down to divert energy to the muscles and in more extreme hyperaroused states the body may even discharge the content of bladder and bowls to further prepare the organism for intense fighting or fleeing. Sweating also increases to keep the muscles cool for when they begin to work hard. In this way, the organism enters a state of increased alertness, vigilance and a preparedness for some form of physical action involving either fighting the threat or fleeing from the threat.
The fight or flight response evolved in prehistoric times when survival relied on both aggressive, combative behavior and flight from a predator. In modern times, this response has remained with us and has been recognized as the first stage of the general adaptation syndrome that regulates stress responses among vertebrates and other organisms (Andrews, Crino, Hunt, Lampe, & Page, 1996).
The Fight or Flight Response:
- The brain becomes aware of danger.
- Hormones are released and the involuntary nervous system sends signals to various parts of the body to produce the following changes:
- The mind becomes alert
- Blood clotting ability increases, preparing for possible injury
- Heart rate speeds up and blood pressure rises
- Sweating increases to help cool the body
- Blood is diverted to the muscles, which tense ready for action
- Digestion slows down
- Saliva production decreases, causing a dry mouth
- Breathing rate speeds up, nostrils and air passages open wider to allow more air in quickly
- Liver releases sugar to provide quick energy
- Sphincter muscles contract to close the openings of the bowel and bladder
- Immune responses decrease to allow for a massive response to immediate threat.
Fear vs Anxiety
Research has proposed a more distinct difference between fear and anxiety, although they produce similar responses to danger. Like anxiety, fear can be good for us. It protects us by activating a massive fight or flight response from the automatic nervous system which motivates us to escape or possibly attack the perceived threat (Barlow & Durand, 2009). Fear is defined as a response to a specific-linked threat whereas anxiety is defined as a nonspecific threat linked defensive state. It is then fair to argue that fear is an immediate emotional reaction to a known or definite danger whereas anxiety is a mood state characterized by apprehension and loss of control regarding possible dangers that may arise from a potential threat as opposed to a real threat (Barlow & Durand, 2009; Butcher, Mineka & Hooley, 2007; Gordon & Hen 2004).
Although the focus of the response is different (real vs. imagined/potential danger), fear and anxiety are interrelated. Fear causes anxiety, and anxiety can cause fear. Although subtle, the distinctions between the two can provide a better understanding of the two emotions (Ankrom, 2009). Another type of fear response is panic. Panic involves a sudden, time limited, experience of intense fear triggering cognitive, physiological and behavioral responses that may be the result of encountering a natural disaster or some other kind of severe life threatening experience. Changes in heart rate, breathing, vision, and hearing are all common features of panic (Barlow & Durand, 2009; Ankrom 2008; Mineka & Hooley, 2007). Panic is viewed as problematic when it becomes disproportionate to the situations and circumstances being faced or when the cause is unidentifiable.
The General Adaptation Syndrome
General adaptation syndrome describes the body’s short-term and long-term reaction to stress. Originally described by Hans De Solye in the 1920s, the general adaptation syndrome describes a three stage reaction to stress covering our initial reaction to the stressor, our resistance and adaptation to coping with the stressor and our eventual exhaustion after dealing with the stress whereby in normal circumstances we will recover from that exhaustion and live to deal with stressors another day.
Alarm reaction phase
During the alarm reaction phase, a stressor disturbs homeostasis. Homeostasis is a point of balance or internal biological equilibrium. The brain subconsciously perceives the stressor and prepares the body either to fight or to run away, a response sometimes called the fight or flight response. When the mind perceives a stressor, the cerebral cortex, is called to attention. If the cerebral cortex consciously or unconsciously perceives a threat, it triggers an autonomic nervous system response that prepares the body for action. The autonomic nervous system is the portion of the central nervous system that regulates bodily functions that we do not normally consciously control. When we are stressed, the rate of all these bodily functions increases dramatically to give us the physical strength to protect ourselves against an attack, or to mobilize internal forces.
In addition to this, the hypothalamus, a section of the brain, functions as the control center and determines the overall reaction to stressors. When the hypothalamus perceives that extra energy is needed to fight a stressor, it stimulates the adrenal glands to release the hormone epinephrine, also called adrenaline. Epinephrine causes more blood to be pumped with each beat of the heart, dilates the air sacs in the lungs to increase oxygen intake, increases the breathing rate, stimulates the liver to release more glucose, and dilates the pupils to improve visual sensitivity.
The body is then poised to act immediately. Other physical responses to stress during this stage include “butterflies” in the stomach, an elevation in blood pressure, dry mouth and tensing of muscles. In some instances if too intense or if for too long the individual may find it difficult to concentrate on preparing well to deal with the stress properly. The alarm reaction directs resources away from the digestive and immune systems to more immediate muscular and emotional needs. In normal circumstances the alarm reaction phase will not last for very long, in some instances it may only be for a few seconds, in other instances longer. The alarm reaction phase is only meant to be a preliminary phase of activating the body and mind into dealing effectively with the presenting stressor or threat.
Resistance (adaptation) phase
As we move from the initial alarm reaction phase, as a preparatory response to the presenting stressor, we then move onto the resistance or adaptation phase. It is in this phase where the body is now actively dealing with the stressor. If this adaptation phase continues for a prolonged period of time without periods of relaxation and rest to counterbalance the stress response and allow time for the body to replenish and repair from the exertion required to execute the appropriate stress response, sufferers become prone to fatigue, concentration lapses, irritability and lethargy as the effort to sustain arousal slides into negative stress. At the most fundamental level of response the organism is going to be either fighting or fleeing in some way, in an attempt to resist the negatively perceived consequences of the threatening stressor.
This resistance may be required for either, a few moments, days, months and sometimes even years. The form of resistance employed will have varying degrees of success depending on how well it is employed and how relevant it is in dealing with the stressor situation. Regardless of the length of time, once the threatening stressor has been dealt with effectively the organism is able to return to its pre-activated state and recover from the ordeal. It is in the process of recovery that adaptation occurs.
Every organism has restricted resources to adapt to stressors. Therefore, whenever someone has to adapt to a stressor they will lose “adaptation energy” meaning that they will have less resources to adapt next time they are confronted with a stressor unless they adapt successfully.
Successful adaptation from resistance is when the body and mind adapts to a point of being more capable in its capacity to resist if ever confronted by the stressor again. In this sense, successful adaptation means the organism has increased its biopsychosocial level of fitness whereby it can take on the same threat more effectively next time or successfully take on a bigger threat next time. It is through this process of adaptation that we learn how to cope better and deal with things more effectively. At a physiological level successful adaptation actually means getting physically fitter. Psychosocially it means having greater levels of resilience, working better coping strategies and having more appropriate emotions and thought processes around the challenging situation.
Problems occur at the resistance/adaptation phase if the combined biological, psychological and social responses employed do not deal with the threat effectively or if the threat is chronic whereby it eventually wears down the capacity of the organism to resist the threat or deal with it properly. This problem leads us to the exhaustion phase of the general adaptation syndrome.
A person can only fight or flee for so long before they begin to wear down in their capacity to resist and deal with it. If the stressor environment is chronic and excessive without any real opportunity to recover or adapt successfully, the organism will begin to show signs of adaptation failure. Systems begin to break down and we become more susceptible to a range of biopsychosocial symptoms. If we persist in functioning at this level, death can occur.
When Anxiety Becomes Excessive
The fight or flight response was designed for use in short-term situations, after which the body would return to a normal level of function. However for about one in 12 people, anxiety can become so severe and prolonged it can impair daily functioning. For these people, anxiety means being constantly fearful, and worried or being so scared of certain situations that he or she is unable to face them. Severe anxiety can lead to other problems like depression, relationship difficulties, or drug and alcohol abuse (University of Sydney, 2007).
Anxiety disorders are now the most common psychological disorders affecting both children and adults (Anxiety Disorders Association of America, 2007). In our modern-day world, the fight or flight response is seldom required for survival. Hence when faced with a situation which, although stressful, poses no real physical danger, this reaction can often be a false alarm which is not turned off because there is no fighting or fleeing required. In such situations, it is common to experience an ongoing feeling of dread, fear or a sensation of being ‘stressed out’. This is the result of anxiety which has become excessive and therefore maladaptive. A common response to such anxiety is to worry about it, which further increases anxiety levels.
Source: Anxiety Disorders CE Course