Anxiety refers to a state of anticipation of alarming future events. Anxiety is usually a normal transient response to stress and may be a necessary cue for adaption and coping, the body’s protective mechanism known as the ‘fight or flight response’.
However, anxiety can become pathologic, where it is excessive and inappropriate to the reality of the current situation. It is often described by many as a distressing experience of dread and foreboding.
Anxiety is manifested in the affective, cognitive behavioural and physical domains. The affective states could range from edginess and unease to terror and panic. Cognitively, the experience is one of worry, apprehension and thoughts concerned with emotional or bodily danger. Behaviourally, anxiety triggers a multitude of responses concerned with diminishing or avoiding the distress.
Physical Manifestations of Anxiety
Stimulating the autonomic nervous system results in an array of bodily perturbations.
Several nervous system structures are involved in fear and pathologic anxiety.
The amygdala is responsible for initiating the fight-or-flight response. When activated, the amygdala triggers a series of changes in brain chemicals and hormones that puts the entire body in anxiety mode.
Left untreated, over time the affected individual’s body physically responds more frequently and intensely to worries. Co-morbid depression often sets in. One’s ability to meaningfully function academically, occupationally and socially gets hampered, leading to a deterioration in the quality of life.
Treatment of Pathologic Anxiety
The first point of contact for many patients would be their general practitioners or even the hospital Accident & Emergency department. It is important to evaluate and rule out underlying medical illnesses that may mimic an anxiety disorder, such as thyroid disorders, heart rhythm disturbances, gastrointestinal diseases or alcohol withdrawal. The doctor may order some basic investigations, such as a thyroid function blood test or an electrocardiogram (to check one’s heart rhythm). Once medical causes have been excluded or identified and treated, persisting anxiety symptoms would warrant a psychiatric consultation.
A prescription of anti-depressants such as Selective Serotonin Re-Uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) to aid in the balancing of the brain neurotransmitters may be suggested. Anxiolytics such as benzodiazepines e.g. Clonazepam may be used in the initial phase of treatment, and thereafter only short courses are prescribed to reduce the risk of dependency.
Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) involves cognitive restructuring and anxiety symptom management. Cognitive interventions are aimed at challenging and correcting the inaccurate and maladaptive thought patterns that maintain anxiety disorders. Symptom management techniques e.g. relaxation and breathing re-training procedures, help to eliminate anxiogenic bodily reactions.
Lifestyle adjustments to one’s hectic pace of life need to be made to break the vicious cycle of stress and worry. Developing a healthy routine with regularly scheduled self-esteem-raising activities, ensuring adequate rest and nutrition as well as maintaining social connections are pivotal for mental wellness.
Massachusetts General Hospital, Handbook of General Hospital Psychiatry, seventh edition, chapter 13: Anxious Patients.
Kaplan & Sadock’s Concise Textbook Of Clinical Psychiatry, fourth edition, chapter 6: Anxiety Disorders.
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