Pathological anxiety, or anxiety that is abnormal and interferes with everyday life, is defined as excessive anxiety that causes significant distress. An anxiety attack can be triggered in a diverse range of conditions, and involves a combination of external (environment) and internal (genetic) factors. These factors increase a person’s vulnerability to an anxiety attack and decrease the efficiency of the brain and body to reduce or prevent excessive bursts of anxiety. There are dysfunctions in neural circuitries: inadequate “calming” mechanisms and overactive anxiety, or excitatory, mechanisms, making a person respond aversively to emotional challenges and causing prolonged and/or exaggerated stress and fear responses. A person who suffers from anxiety or anxiety attacks express inappropriate anxious behaviour, interpret a situation as threatening when it’s not (or more threatening than it is), and have a lower stress response threshold. But why does this happen?
Through rodent-model studies, scientists learned that fear and anxiety-like behaviours are polygenetically inherited, meaning that many genes contribute to anxiety. This is also true for humans, and is why some people are more vulnerable to stress response and anxiety attacks, while others seem to cope better with emotional challenges. It may also be the case that those people with anxiety attacks have coping deficits: anxiety from the same stimulus in rodents resulted in longer lasting anxiety-related behaviour in rodents with the genotype for increased susceptibility to anxiety.
Overall, research suggests that dysfunctions in the processing of anxiety in integrated brain circuits involved with fear, anxiety, and stress (such as the limbic, hypothalamic, and hindbrain areas) may either lead to exaggerated activation of pathways that mediate anxiety or to insufficient regulating mechanisms that suppress anxiety and stress. The exact dysfunction can vary within individuals, and occurs because of the inheritance of an “anxiety gene” on which the environment acts upon and activates its expression.
Remarkably, an anxiety attack is therefore more than just an unpleasant sensation: it is the product of many hyper activated brain regions and hypoactive or dysfunctional coping mechanisms, without forgetting the influence and interaction of environment and genetics. What happens in the brain depends slightly on what exactly happens in the environment: different situations evoke different brain circuitries involved in stress, emotion, and memory. Any alterations to these pathways and responses may be induced by a person’s specific genotype that makes him or her more likely to experience an anxiety attack under less aversive conditions than what would cause the average person anxiety.
So don’t stress out too much. If you experience anxiety attacks like I do, hopefully you can find some peace of mind in knowing that it may not be you, but your genes, environment, or diet (or a combination) that is making you anxious! Inhale calmness, and exhale stress. It’s time to gain control over your anxiety by knowing about your brain.
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