Many of us have faced the dark symptoms of anxiety, Whether writing an exam or applying for a new job. But for some, this feeling is difficult to stop even in seemingly normal situations, leaving a lasting effect on quality of life, so what’s going on and why are you so anxious? Close to 7 million people are affected by generalized anxiety disorder, meaning they experience excessive anxiety that occurs more days than not for at least six months. This can include sleep disturbance, irritability, and muscle tension. Panic attacks are also possible but slightly different, in that they are sudden and short episodes of intense fear that trigger a severe physical reaction like accelerated heart rate, shortness of breath, and dizziness.
In fact, anyone can experience a panic attack, whether or not they have an anxiety disorder, and it’s not always triggered by something known or specific. While not fully understood, anxiety is partially triggerred by the amygdala and hypothalamus controlling the circulation of cortisol and adrenaline in your body. Genetically, 40% of those with generalized anxiety disorder also have a relative with it, meaning these hormone levels are likely linked to your genes. Your environment can also be a factor, as certain anxiety disorders are related to traumatic childhood experiences. Varying levels of neutron transmitters like GABA, serotonin, and dopamine may also be to blame. Serotonin which contributes to feeling of well-being and happiness, works by moving from neuron to neuron in your brain through a gap called the synapse.
Any unused serotonin returns to the original neuron through a special transporter. But for those with something like OCD, a type of anxiety disorder, it has been suggested that a mutation in these transporters creates a higher volume of returned serotonin before it’s had a chance to move to the receiving neuron resulting in a decreased amount in the synapse, ultimately affecting your emotions. This is why medications like Selective Serotonin Reuptaken Inhibitors are often used in these anxiety cases to prevent the seretonin from returning to its original neuron.
Many anxiety disorders also show an overactive amygdala and periaqueductal gray area which can have negative repercussions not just on the brain but on our bodies. In a study of nearly 300 people over five years, those who had overactrive amygdalas had a higher incidence of heart disease too as it triggers an increased production of white blood cell in the bone marrow, leading to an inflammatory response which contributes to increased build-up of fatty deposits in the artery. If you have a phobia, that’s considered an anxiety disorder too. But since many fears can help use survive like the fear of spiders or heights, it’s been suggested that they may be imprinted on our DNA and passed on. When mice are shocked with electricity after been exposed to the smell of fruits, they quickly learn to fear that smell. But more amazing is that the future generations of mice also fear the fruits’ smells, even though they’ve never been exposed to the shock. It turns out that electrical shock led to over expression in certain odor receptors, making the next generation more sensitive to certain smells. Almost as though they were switched on. and the switches maybe related to some phobias.
When it comes to treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy helps identify certain thoughts that leads to the feelings influencing your behavior and aims to change those initial thoughts to combat anxiety disorders. On the other hand, medications such as SSRIs and SNRIS, are often used to prevent reuptake of serotonin or norepinephrine, but can result in many side effects and often increase tolerance with prolonged use. Benzodiazepines are also used to help induce sleep and promote muscle relaxation, but are also linked to dementia in older populations. Needless to say the neuro-chemical basis of anxiety is extremely complicated and it’s not useful to tell somebody to just calm down or get over it. So we decided to make a second video breaking down what we do to combat anxiety with some tips and tricks that we find work, which you can checkout here, and subscribe for more weekly science videos every Thursday.