Articles: Introduction to Anxiety

In my previous post, Pattern Recognition in the Brain I explained how we assess incoming stimuli as perceived by our senses and form patterns based on previous information, to which we attach emotion. Since the same region of the brain that’s responsible for emotional processing regulates major autonomic functions, fear and aggression are closely linked to memories of certain sensory inputs (e.g. a particular smell). However, it’s not always possible to identify specific psychological “triggers” and involuntary neurological dysfunction commonly affects mood and cognition. That’s why, when it comes to anxiety, many people mistakenly think it’s simply an overreaction like Hypochondria or Munchausen syndrome.

I used to think this; seeing other people trembling and/or hyperventilating plus hearing their reasons for avoiding social situations did little to enhance my understanding. Never mind the fact that I experienced periodic bouts of nausea and stomach aches as a young child. How could I have forgotten? As I got older, I learned to press on despite discomfort and suppress whatever thoughts or feelings made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t until a series of incidents where I became nauseated and light-headed to the point of passing out that I finally realized, “I think I’ve been having a decades-long anxiety attack!” This may explain the catalyst for my digestive issues that seem to escalate with each long-term situation that causes severe stress (recall prior post, Pro Gut Feelings). As usual, I delved into research hoping to understand what was happening to me. There was a lot to learn!

Symptoms of anxiety include:

  • restlessness, unease
  • fatigue
  • difficulty concentrating
  • irritability
  • muscle tension, including jaw clenching (often even teeth grinding)
  • trouble sleeping

Misconceptions about anxiety:

  • Anxiety doesn’t always generate visible/ outward symptoms.
  • Anxiety isn’t simply nervousness or anticipation.
  • Anxiety, panic attacks and phobia(s) aren’t synonymous, though they have some overlapping symptoms.
  • Anxiety isn’t always preceded by worry.
  • Anxiety isn’t always triggered by loud/ negative music or suspenseful/ violent movies.
  • Anxiety cannot be overcome by logic/ reason.
  • Anxiety is heavily influenced– though not necessarily determined– by diet and similar health-related factors.

Fortunately, the Human brain is impressionable, i.e. can be “rewired.” Not quickly or easily but neurological relief from symptoms is possible. Stay tuned for more about that. In the meantime, my professional counselor gave me a helpful analogy: your mind is a bus and you’re the bus driver. Many different people (feelings) will get on the bus; some will stay longer than others. But at some point, they’ll get off the bus. Acknowledge each passenger (emotion) as it arrives; let it ride until it leaves. Remember: it won’t stay on forever.

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