What Creates Anxiety ?

I wrote about understanding anxiety on 9/23 and want to follow up with more IMG_0860information about its causes.

Anxiety is when you are uncontrollably focused on a possible future threat, danger, or other event that you believe will have a negative outcome.  You are thrown into a state of helplessness because you are convinced that you cannot predict, control, or obtain the results you want. This is the feeling/emotional part of anxiety. There is also a physiological aspect to anxiety.

The physical part is 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. What causes this reaction?

Setting Anxiety in Motion

Cues or triggers set anxiety in motion. They can be events that will happen soon, such as taking a test (test anxiety), anticipating sex (sexual performance anxiety), a date (social anxiety), or a doctor’s appointment  (health anxiety). This means that you will have to perform Now. The apprehension results in an increase in self evaluation, self focus, and/or uncertainty of your ability. So, your attention narrows and you search for cues about this particular thing, looking for more information. Unfortunately, your judgments are usually then biased. This leads to avoidance of the situation (cancel appointment and go to sleep) or you perseverate on certain aspects of the situation (date – what to wear, sex – an erection, job – too many sick days, test – did you study the footnotes). there is always something to worry about when you are looking for trouble. You are living the old adage: when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Worry, or concern over events is probably an attempt to control threatening or challenging events.

The Illusion of Control

Your perception of your lack of control over potentially challenging or threatening events causes anxiety. Many people ignore hints of their lack of control and therefore, do not feel anxiety – not a bad strategy. In experiments, the researchers find little difference in the people’s abilities to perform – talented people are anxious and slackers are anxious and different people dread different situations –  think stage fright, going out in crowds, tests, sexual performance, flying in airplanes.

Other Factors Influence Anxiety

            Here are 2 other important factors:

1. Early learning experiences seem to focus anxiety on specific types of threat, for example, whether anxiety will show up as social anxiety (people related), somatic anxiety (body and illness related) or phobias (things like snakes, bugs). So, childhood experiences may become associated with certain worries that focus anxiety reactions on those particular concerns.

2. Genetics also play a role. It is estimated that genetics may account for between 30-50% of the variance of expressions of anxiety. Also, people who are temperamentally neurotic and negative are more likely to display anxiety.

Source: David Barlow. The nature and development of anxiety and its disorders. Winter, 2003. Eye on Psi Chi




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