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Cape Byron Medical Centre

WHAT IS THE CAUSE OF AN ANXIETY DISORDER?

Anxiety is a word in common usage, and these days, is often viewed as a concrete health problem, yet anxiety is at the basis of many other emotional experiences. Anxiety is an emotional response to something unknown and uncertain, that creates a sense of unease.  It feels as if something is wrong.

The experience of anxiety is at a sensory level and therefore is first experienced in the body. 
We all know the experience of acute anxiety. It is mediated through the sympathetic nervous system and triggered as part of the body’s fight or flight response to danger.

Flight from a bushfire is an example of a situation that would arouse fear in all of us.
However, anxiety can also be provoked by any change, even one that seems positive, like a move to a new house or starting a new relationship or having a baby.

Anxiety can be experienced unconsciously in a way that a person, a couple or a family are unaware of.  For example, a child who develops a stomach ache every Monday morning of the school term and protests his reluctance to go to school.

Anxiety is a normal part of the human experience from birth until death and provides an opportunity for the psyche to grow and to cope with a number of developmental milestones, challenges, crisis, and stresses inherent in the cycle of life.


But when the amount of anxiety aroused from perceived external danger or internal triggers, where the threat is less clear, overwhelms a person’s coping mechanisms it can become pathological and can lead to distressing symptoms.

For instance, a person with panic attacks can feel so dreadful they imagine that they are dying. In social phobia, there is a fear of being unacceptable, fear of not being part of the group, of being ostracised, rejected, and abandoned.

In a person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, there is a catastrophic fear that they are responsible for preventing or causing something bad to happen.
These symptoms can be thought about as revealing vulnerabilities in the psychological structure of the mind of the sufferer and therefore they are unable to manage the anxieties that are being stirred.

There is a developmental sequence of anxieties related to development inherent in growth and maturation.  For instance, during infancy, anxieties are related to emotional holding as the baby learns to self-soothe at a bodily level, whilst during adolescence, anxieties are related to identity formation as the young person seeks to find out how they want to be in the world.

Whether these developmental anxieties have been sufficiently managed, contributes to the internalised psychological structures of the mind and this will either help or hinder the infant, child, or adult’s capacity to deal with life.

Pathological states of anxiety tend to reoccur during crises and the next developmental hurdle to be worked through.

Psychologists are able to help sufferers to understand the developmental vulnerabilities in their mind and assist them to build the necessary internal structures to better cope.  Sometimes interventions that help the sufferer at a bodily level, such as acupuncture and medication, may be needed to assist the psychological work.