Our bodies have evolved over millions of years to survive adversity, developing intricate adaptive responses to stimuli. When facing threat, organisms often experience the “fight or flight” response. If you have ever watched a nature program and seen a gazelle fleeing from a lion you will have seen the fight or flight in action. This response is marked by an increase in heart rate (improved blood oxygenation), diversion of blood flow from peripheral areas to muscles (for more prompt physical response), tunnel vision (to avoid distraction and focus on threat response) etc.
Although anxiety can be adaptive in our day to day (e.g. by enabling a quick response to cars when crossing the road), modern threats have changed and anxiety can be exacerbated by cognitive distortions or ruminative tendencies, amongst other factors. When the experience of anxiety is ongoing and disproportionate to the stimulus itself it can lead to withdrawal, avoidance, cognitive impairment and a detrimental impact on our emotional wellness.
An alternative response to threat is the “freeze and surrender” response, for example when possums play dead to avoid predators. In humans an acute response to intense anxiety may lead to dissociative states, where individuals report blanking out and/or feeling paralyzed.
There are different subcategories of anxiety. The most common are:
Generalized anxiety disorder is marked by anxiety that is persistent and disproportionate to the actual stimulus and is associated to intense helplessness
Panic disorder develops out of catastrophic misinterpretation of events and symptoms, leading to an increase in anxiety and subsequent panic attacks. Panic disorder is associated to strong physical experience and a sense of feeling out of control and impending doom.
Social anxiety (social phobia) is characterized by a sense of embarrassment and the fear of being viewed negatively and judged or ridiculed by others.
Specific phobias are marked by heightened anxiety response to a specific feared stimuli or situation.
Agoraphobia is the fear of environments judged unsafe and where one feels trapped and/or out of control. It may lead to social isolation and withdrawal
There are other types of anxiety which, when experienced intensely, can lead to panic attacks or dissociative episodes. If your anxiety lasts for a long time and feels disproportionate and inescapable you may be suffering with an anxiety disorder. Misinterpretation of physiological responses to anxiety can further exacerbate the initial fear and worry (e.g. when individuals fear cardiac problems and death due to increased heart rate). Anxiety, in whatever guise, can affect social and cognitive engagement with a detrimental impact on psychological wellness.
Although anxiety may be a symptom of a medical condition (such as heart problems, thyroid disfunction, low estrogen levels etc), it is not uncommon for psychological and physiological factors to be inter-twined. In therapy we would aim to explore the nature of your anxiety, your response to it and more adaptive ways of relating to the world and anxiety inducing situations.
Staying physically and socially active can help reduce anxiety symptoms. Conversely, alcohol and substance misuse can exacerbate anxiety symptoms. Importantly, we know it is easier to implement changes early in the development of any difficulty and we would encourage you to seek help as soon as possible.
Clients who completed therapy with Oxford Mind & Body have reported significant improvements in anxiety symptoms from start of therapy to the end of treatment. If you are struggling with anxiety and would like to speak to one of us do book an appointment. We look forward to hearing from you and working together.