By Lindsay Hildebrand
Anxiety is a common human experience, and it affects all of us to a varying degree. It’s a natural response to help us navigate life’s challenges and stay safe. However, when anxiety becomes excessive, chronic, or irrational, it can significantly impact our well-being. Our brain is wired to keep us safe and help us survive physical dangers, it is not designed to make us happy or give us peace of mind. Our brains can become hypervigilant for a variety of reasons. Have you ever noticed how we can have the same physical reaction to something life threatening such as a near car accident as we have to something that is more of an inconvenience such as locking ourselves out of our house? Our heart might race, we might get hot, we may even become flustered and unable to respond with logic. This is because our brains are not always able to determine the accurate severity of different situations. This can cause more anxiety and stress than is necessary in our day to day life partially because our anxiety is compounded by the confusion we feel at seeming to lose control of ourselves.
Let’s delve into the various factors that contribute to the development of anxiety, shedding light on why this complex emotion arises and what we might be able to do about it.
Anxiety has deep evolutionary roots. Our distant ancestors faced numerous physical threats, such as predators and environmental dangers. Anxiety, as part of the fight-or-flight response, helped them react swiftly to these life-threatening situations. Today, while we face fewer physical threats, our bodies still respond with anxiety to various stressors, reflecting its ancient survival role.
Genetics play a role in the development of anxiety. Studies suggest that individuals with a family history of anxiety disorders may be at a higher risk. Specific genes can influence how our brains process and respond to stress, impacting our vulnerability to anxiety.
Our brains are composed of a delicate balance of neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that regulate mood and stress. Imbalances in neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, can contribute to anxiety. While saying depression and anxiety are due to a “chemical imbalance” is a pretty big oversimplification (often used dismissively to shame individuals into whatever the shamer determines is the correct pathway towards health), these and other neurotransmitters play a role in the activation and prevalence of our anxiety.
Life experiences, particularly traumatic events, chronic stress, or significant life changes, can trigger the development of anxiety. Experiencing a traumatic event, such as a car accident or natural disaster, can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), characterized by heightened anxiety responses. Not all seemingly traumatic events or life changes result in PTSD and/or anxiety. Instead, it is always helpful to think about each of these factors working together to regulate this experience.
Certain personality traits can make individuals more susceptible to anxiety. For example, perfectionism, low self-esteem, or a tendency to be highly self-critical can increase the likelihood of developing anxiety disorders. People with perfectionistic tendencies often set high standards for themselves, leading to constant worry about meeting those expectations. As these expectations are often unreachable or become ever moving goal posts – the pressure increases and the anxious response to meet these goals continues to get stronger and stronger.
Environmental stressors, such as a demanding job, financial pressures, or a lack of social support, can contribute to anxiety. These external pressures can strain an individual’s ability to cope, leading to heightened anxiety. Often these factors are or at the very least appear to be beyond our control.
Childhood and Early Life
Childhood experiences, including attachment patterns, can shape one’s vulnerability to anxiety. Insecure attachment or early exposure to stressful environments can lay the groundwork for anxiety disorders in adulthood. Traumatic experiences can leave people fearing the worst possible scenarios (which is fair since the worst possible scenario has likely happened to them). This causes hypervigilance as our brains are wired to avoid the worst possible situations.
Similar to brain chemistry, structural and functional changes in the brain can be linked to anxiety disorders. The amygdala, a region of the brain responsible for processing emotions and regulating our flight, fight, and freeze response, is often overactive in people with anxiety disorders. Conversely, the prefrontal cortex, responsible for rational decision-making and impulse control, may be underactive, contributing to irrational anxiety responses.
Anxiety is a multifaceted emotion with various contributing factors. It has deep evolutionary roots as a survival response and is influenced by genetics, brain chemistry, life experiences, personality traits, and environmental stressors. While anxiety can be a normal and adaptive response to stress, excessive or chronic anxiety can be debilitating.
Understanding the origins of anxiety is the first step in anxiety treatment. If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety that interferes with daily life, it’s important to seek help with a mental health therapist. Anxiety disorders are treatable, and various therapeutic approaches, such as anxiety counseling, medication, and lifestyle changes, can help individuals regain control of their lives and find relief from overwhelming anxiety. Remember, you are not alone, and there is hope for a brighter, less anxious future. At Approach Psychology all of our therapists are trained professionals and know how to treat anxiety and all sorts of anxiety disorders. Whether this is treatment in person or virtually, our team can help support you through helping you understand your anxiety at a deeper level, creating a safe place in which to explore your anxiety, and working with you to develop new ways of coping, along with tools to help you change the way you experience anxiety.