Why Do We Get Anxiety Disorders?
A New answer
To have anxiety is to be human; everybody gets anxious at times. And most people experience high anxiety frequently since things
like exams and tests, interviews, public speaking, first dates and competitive sports can make anyone pretty anxious.
Evolved over millions of years, anxiety is a self-protection instinct, a series of reflexes, reactions and responses in our
mind and body that help to protect us from danger.
We think about dangerous situations and get scared – this keeps us away from them. And when threat or danger is near, the
fight-or-flight response 'kicks in' to prepare us for action. Our heart speeds up, breathing quickens, all our senses are
heightened and we feel shaky, jittery, on-edge – totally energized, in order to fight our way out of danger or flee from
In the past, anxiety and the fight-or-flight response served us well. Physical threat and danger were everywhere and, for our
ancestors, the ability to fight or flee quickly really was a life saver.
But the world we live in today is very different from the one we inhabited thousands of years ago.
Wild animals, poisonous snakes and insects, strangers, heights and confined spaces... being confronted by any of these could have
been life threatening.
In the modern world we no longer face the direct threats of our ancestors. They still exist of course: wild animals, dangerous
strangers etc., and could potentially kill us in certain circumstances, but they don't impact our lives as they did.
Today, the things that make us feel scared are more subtle and vague. Their effects build up slowly over time, and
include such things as:-
• Conflict with partners in relationships
• Conflict with family members
• Trouble with work colleagues or the job itself
• Money, bills and fear of debt
• Health, diet and the fear of illness
• The violence in the world as reported daily on the news
All of these can make us feel bad, unhappy and miserable for a long time. They make us uncomfortable, generally discontented and in a very
real way, insecure.
Feeling insecure and vulnerable indicates danger, so these things arouse anxiety within us – only small amounts initially, but
nevertheless it's anxiety.
These life situations, common to us all, make us anxious. And the more situations we encounter, the more our anxiety builds up. But
it's not anxiety we can release by avoiding, fighting or fleeing. Here, the fight-or-flight response isn't appropriate for we aren't in
real physical danger – so slowly but surely our anxiety increases.
This explains the undercurrent of increased anxiety that flows through vast swathes of society today and why many people live their lives
ruled by intangible feelings of insecurity.
But there's more, something else, something that turns this anxiety into a greater problem.
Being anxious represents a threat, we are in danger... and seemingly for no real reason. We can't live like this, over-anxious, our mind
won't let us. There must be a reason for this threat, this thing that is making us scared.
But there is no wild animal, no dangerous stranger, no tangible threat, so it must be something else.
Eventually, our subconscious reaches a conclusion... it must be something about us. We are, in some way: 'not good enough'/ 'wrong'
/ 'bad' / 'weak' and therefore vulnerable to attack.
It is this turning of anxiety into 'something about us' (rather than the result of any external threat or danger) that signals the start of many
anxiety disorders today.
Feeling scared and vulnerable, we need to know what's causing this and what we can do to stop it.
Eventually, the subconscious reasons we reach to explain the threat and how we can stop it come to shape the anxiety disorder that develops.
• In Generalized Anxiety Disorder, we believe the threat to stem from something awful happening to ourself or loved
ones and worry incessantly about the possibility of bad things happening.
• With Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, we see potential threats all around us – they are unseen, yet could destroy
us and involve such things as: being contaminated/contaminating others and being punished by God.
• In Social Phobia, we attribute our anxiety to the threat of being rejected or attacked by other people.
• In Panic Disorder involves the threat coming from our own body and the belief that there is something physically wrong
Anxiety disorders involve attributing our inner anxiety to plausible external reasons for it even though they have nothing to do with it. And they do provide
an element of control – the compulsions relieve the obsession, worrying and rituals slightly relieve the thought of possible catastrophe, avoidance relieves
social phobia – that's why we continue to do the behaviour.
Unfortunately, it's only the illusion of control for it never touches the underlying cause of the problem. This is why anxiety disorders get stronger and stronger over
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The Collins English Dictionary describes anxiety as "a state of uneasiness or tension caused by apprehension of possible
misfortune, danger etc."
And to be anxious is to be "worried and tense".
Latin anxietas gave anxiety in English; the base is Latin anxius, from angere 'to choke'
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