How Anxiety Works

Anxiety may affect as many as 16.4% of the population in the U.S.  If this number Digital StillCamerais correct, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problem in the country. I want to give you a few essentials about anxiety so that you will understand this disorder a little bit better. If you use the chart at the end of the post, it can help you to follow and understand your own reactions.

What is anxiety? Think of it as an uncontrollable focus on a possible future threat, danger or other event that will produce a negative outcome.

The emotional aspect of anxiety. It produces a state of helplessness because you fear that you cannot predict, control or obtain your desired results. This is the affective or feeling part of anxiety. When you feel anxious, you also experience a physiological change.

The physical aspect of anxiety. The physical part is the activation of the brain circuits associated with engagement of the corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF). It physically feels like a state of readiness, vigilance, or hyper-awareness – perhaps to counteract the emotional feelings of helplessness.

Anxious apprehension (anxiety) can be understood as the negative mood in which you are preparing yourself for some terrible event in the future (usually imaginary). There is a trigger but it may not be conscious or rational.

Chart of anxious apprehension

1. Trigger (a cue that evokes anxiety)             –> leads to

2. Negative affect which is a sense of uncontrollability and lack of belief that you can influence the outcome                             –> leads to

3. Attentional shift where you think about yourself (self-evaluation) and your emotional or physical responses                          –> leads to

4. Intensified response                                      –> leads to

More arousal,

            Cognitive biases (selective attention to threat ignoring more positive information)

Hypervigilance (super-alertness), and

More negative affect                                            –> leads to

5. Attempts to cope by Avoidance or Worrying

  Hypervigilence also leads to poor performance which, of course, increases negative affect.

And there we have the miserable circle of anxious apprehension. You cannot control most cues (although you can certainly change some – like a bad boss) so we try to intervene someplace after the trigger, as soon as possible to shut down the rest of the cycle.

one source: the work of David Barlow, Ph.D., 2003




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