Chapter 1: A is for Anxiety

Anxiety (noun)

anx·​i·​ety | \ aŋ-ˈzī-ə-tē  \

1. a: (1): apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness usually over an impending or anticipated ill: a state of being anxious

  (2) medical: an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physical signs (such as tension, sweating, and increased pulse rate), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it

    b: mentally distressing concern or interest

    c: a strong desire sometimes mixed with doubt, fear, or uneasiness*

Recently, I read a really good analogy for anxiety on the website © Anxiety Canada. “Anxiety is like a smoke alarm system: A smoke alarm can help to protect us when there is an actual fire, but when a smoke alarm is too sensitive and goes off when there isn’t really a fire (e.g., burning toast in toaster), it is rather annoying. Like a smoke alarm, anxiety is helpful and adaptive when it works right. But, if it goes off when there is no real danger, it is not only scary, it is also very exhausting.”

Good, huh? The first example in that analogy describes the anxiety that we all have. Anxiety brought on by stress is common. It usually has an expiration date, meaning that it goes away when the stress goes away. Anxiety is normal and is actually valuable in cases like when a car is speeding towards us, and our body triggers our ‘fight or flight’ response, and we jump out of the way. Yup, good thing.

The second example in that analogy, which is the focus of this book, describes the more complex variety of anxiety, when the fight or flight response malfunctions and is triggered when it’s not needed or necessary.  

Although the term “anxiety” or “anxiety disorder” may feel rather current, anxiety as a mental disorder has been written about as far back as the early Greek and Latin physicians and philosophers. Marcus Aurelius, the well-known Roman philosopher and emperor, wrote about the importance of daily reflection to adjust one’s perceptions and expectations. His contemporaries suggested various treatments for mental disorders similar to today’s Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

Unfortunately for women, the term “hysteria” was also coined by the Greeks, placing the blame for mental disorders such as panic attacks, on the poor little uterus, from which the word is derived. Plato believed that the uterus travelled throughout the body, “blocking passages, obstructing breathing, and causing disease”, to say nothing of the “female semen” that could poison a poor woman and make her a little crazy if she didn’t have sex. (How conveeenient.) I don’t know how they accounted for the male population who dealt with anxiety disorders, but I’m betting their wives got the blame.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, descriptions of the symptoms of an anxiety disorder could be found in texts under headings such as melancholy or panophobia. Treatments during this period were often more drastic, and those poor souls unlucky enough to be diagnosed with these disorders could find themselves locked away in asylums, undergoing all kinds of “therapies” invented by some pretty deluded dudes.

Today’s research indicates that anxiety is caused by a combination of life experience, brain chemistry, genetics, and our evolutionary development. Geneticist Gerome Breen from King’s College in London, U.K., who has studied genetic links for mental disorders, reported that 66 genetic links for depression and anxiety have been identified. Recent studies out of King’s College indicate that between 30% and 40% of depression and anxiety is genetic and the remaining 60% to 70% is caused by environmental factors.

The DSM-5, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Edition 5, has a whole section just on anxiety disorders. It states: “anxiety disorders include disorders that share features of excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioral disturbances.” Anxiety differs from fear in that it is an anticipation of future threat and involves “cautious or avoidant behaviors”, usually excessive or out of proportion to the threat. Generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and phobias are just examples of disorders found in this chapter, and a person can be diagnosed (by a qualified clinician) with more than one.

As an unqualified, non-clinician, I have decided that I have generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, a few phobias, and possibly even agoraphobia, but it could just be my anxiety making that diagnosis, so I don’t recommend my method of evaluation.

I also read that it is a myth that learning about anxiety will make you more anxious, but I’ve got to tell you that after spending a few hours in the DSM-5, my shoulders are up near my ears, my chest feels tight, and I can’t wait to get out of this chapter and write something else. I’m hoping my whole book won’t do that to you. I’ve made a concerted effort to keep the dry stuff to a minimum. I promise.

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