Understanding Anxiety

It is a Symptom, Not the Problem

Anxiety is a part of our primitive, emotional brain (the limbic system) that protects us from danger. This area of the brain, especially the amygdala, is the sensor that sends a message to our adrenal glands, and gives us the adrenaline to fight or flee. If the ability to regulate this system is interfering with your ability to decide whether the trigger is an actual danger or not, which is the job of the frontal lobe, this can cause chronic anxiety disorder.

Some common features of anxiety are as follows:

  • Pounding heart
  • Sweating
  • Upset stomach or dizziness
  • Frequent urination or diarrhea
  • Feelings of apprehension or dread
  • Constantly watching for danger
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trembling
  • Feeling tense or jumpy
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness

Anxiety: A Symptom, Not the Problem

It is important to remember that anxiety is a symptom, similar to the check-engine light on your dashboard lighting up to let you know that there is something wrong with your engine. Feeling anxious is signaling that there is danger to your survival. If that danger is not real, you are unable to perceive whether or not it is real, or you are unable to control the feeling, such as generalized anxiety or anxiety related to clinical depression, the anxiety itself is not the problem. The anxious feelings are a symptom of the actual problem.

Finding the Solution for Anxiety, First you must find the Cause

Our bodies have limited ways of indicating that there is something wrong. The cause, or causes, of those symptoms can vary drastically. This is especially true for anxiety. Therefore, it is extremely important to differentiate which of the causes ranks the highest in order to find the appropriate treatment methods to help you.

When new patients come to Dr. Diane®, she uses the following analogy to help describe just how anxiety is a symptom and not the underlying problem. She explains that sweating, as in perspiring, is a symptom and it is important to find out the what is causing the person to sweat in order to treat the sweating. In one of Dr. Diane®’s offices there is a huge front window. Dr. Diane® asks her patients to image themselves outside looking into her office on a chilly fall day. In this office there is also a fireplace. She asks her patient to image a fire ablaze. Then she’ll ask the new patient to image there is a 45 year-old woman in who is sweating while sitting in the office chair.

Here are the following probable causes of why the woman is perspiring:

  • The room is too hot
  • She has a fever
  • She is anxious
  • She has food poisoning
  • She has diabetes
  • She’s having a hot flash
  • She has Lyme Disease.

The potential answers range from having all seven issues individually or concurrently. Therefore, it is extremely important to differentiate which of the causes ranks the highest in order to find the appropriate solution (or methods and treatments) to help her.

Causes of Anxiety

Genetics/Temperament

Research over the years has shown some individuals are born hearty, reactive, and sensitive. Knowing this and in order to help explain this concept, Dr. Diane® jokes with her patients, by labeling them by dog breeds, because most people have little knowledge about variability in horses, yet most people do about dogs.

Dr. Diane® explains that the most anxious Newfoundland dog is still calmer than the calmest Chihuahua. A young boy came into her office dealing with symptoms from a concussion, and Dr. Diane® told him he was as anxious as a Chihuahua. He totally agreed. Dr. Diane® explained that she could make him less anxious, yet he would always be a Chihuahua. He joked that his parents were Chihuahuas too, and they agreed. Here was a reactive, sensitive individual who could identify with his own temperament. In this situation, his anxiety was from an environmental factor, which was his concussion.

Parenting

In early stages of development prior to age 14, the connections to the frontal lobe (the responsive, logical brain) are still being developed. It is not until you are around 24 years old that these connections are fully developed. Hence, if your amygdala is activated at an early age from fear or discomfort, it is the mother or caregiver who becomes the soothing, holding environment to calm the infant. When there is no soothing, holding, comforting environment during this period of life, you see issues of attachment disorder, fearfulness, and lack of trust.

There are variables even in this category which Rhonda Lettington shared in her book, The Alphabet of Wounded Cherubs: Individuals with Attachment Issues.

  • Parental/caregiver contributions
  • Child contributions
  • Environmental contributions.

Contributions to Anxiety Include the Following:

 

  • Abuse and/or neglect
  • Ineffective and insensitive care
  • Depression, bipolar, postpartum
  • Severe and/or chronic psychological disturbances
  • Substance abuse
  • Intergenerational attachment difficulties
  • Prolong absences: prison, hospital, desertion.

 

  • Difficult temperament
  • Lack of “fit” with parents
  • Premature birth
  • Medical conditions, unresolved pain, colicky
  • Hospitalizations, separation and loss
  • Failure to thrive syndrome
  • Congenital and/or biological problems: fetal alcohol syndrome, physical handicap
  • Genetic factors, family history of mental illness, depression, aggression.

 

  • Poverty
  • Violence: victim or witness
  • Lack of support or services
  • Multiple out of home placements
  • High stress/chaos in family and community
  • Lack of stimulation
  • Disease and brain injury.

If you are one of the lucky individuals that did not have any of these situations growing up and your basic genetic temperament is hearty rather than reactive or sensitive, having any of the following environmental situations will still activate your fight/flight (anxiety) area of the brain: Disease and chronic illness, Trauma, Substance abuse, Anticipation of possible danger, World events and TV, Toxins in our food, the environment, and the electromagnetic field.

Other Causes of Anxiety

If you’ve had a brain injury from a stroke, concussion, MS, or Parkinson’s Disease, this too can cause the ability to make the connection to the frontal lobe (the emotional braking system) malfunction, and therefore cause an inability to regulate and control your anxiety.

Other possible causes include, stress, GMOs from food, chemical toxins, and electromagnetic fields from your phone, electrical wires, and your computer.

The bottom line is that the limbic system, your alarm system from danger, is being triggered. If the ability to regulate this system is interfering with your ability to decide whether the trigger is an actual danger or not–which is what the frontal lobe does–it causes chronic anxiety disorder.

Find Help and Hope in Dr. Diane’s Book!

Coping with Concussion and Mild Traumatic Brain Injury

If you're suffering from a concussion, or any other form of mild traumatic brain injury, pick up Dr. Diane's book Coping with Concussion and Mild Traumatic Brain Injury and start healing today!


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Dr. Diane® Roberts Stoler, Ed.D.
7 Hodges Street
N. Andover, MA 01845
Phone: (800) 500-9971

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Image Credit Elaine Boucher

Within each person shines an inner light that illuminates our path and is the source of hope. Illness, trauma, suffering and grief can diminish the light and shroud hope. I am a catalyst for hope and change, offering a way to rekindle this inner light.

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