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Anxiety, Panic, and Depression

March 18, 2017

Anxiety is something that many fear; however, it is not as bad as most of us think.  In fact, it is very necessary for our survival.  Without anxiety, just as with fear, our species would not have survived.  When we were in our more primitive state and attacked by a predator, it took the apprehension caused by fear and anxiety to get us to react automatically and either run for safety or fight off the predator.  It is simply an activation of our limbic system, which regulates our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.

The physiology of anxiety and panic begins when a threat to our survival is perceived and our limbic system engages.  The amygdala, which controls our emotions, is activated by fear.  In conjunction, the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands are initiated and adrenalin pumps through the body by the adrenal glands located on the tops of the kidneys.  Our heart rate and respirations increase to accelerate oxygen and other nutrients to flood through the body for immediate access to the needed energy.  The pupils dilate so that we can perceive danger more readily.  Our distal arteries dilate to allow blood to reach the extremities faster, and we suddenly break out into a sweat.  All of this is instantly activated before we have a chance to think about it.  In fact, the frontal cortex, the front part of the brain responsible for our cognitive functioning, is deactivated not allowing us to think.  If we have to take the time to think how we are going to react when that ball is coming at our face, whether to duck, dodge, or catch, it will hit us in the face long before we react; therefore, the amygdala triggers the frontal cortex to shut down.

When anxiety becomes detrimental is when it becomes too intense for us to handle.  It takes control and overwhelms our coping mechanisms.  We call this limbic hijacking and results from our limbic system taking over our state of being.  Many times the anxiety attack is unconsciously triggered.  Generally we experienced some sort of trauma that triggered the limbic system to react to a real or perceived threat.  During the initial trauma, a stimulus was imprinted onto our psyche and lay dormant until a similar incident triggered it.  This stimulus could be in the form of a smell, feeling, sound, or any other from our other senses.  Therefore, if we imagine an initial situation where we were robbed, the smell of the robber’s body odor could be imprinted and ready to trigger any time we smell similar body odor.  Unconsciously our brain remembers the odor and believes we are being robbed again.  Because the brain cannot tell the difference between the neurochemicals produce during the initial incident and those being produce during the imagined incident, it will cause the limbic system to activate and take control of us.  The anxiety attack will last approximately 15-20 minutes and then diminish.  If the trigger is still present, it can re-ignite the limbic system and prolong the attack; subsequently, our regulatory system is fatigued and we are more susceptible to illnesses and injuries.  Many people who experience the anxiety attack may mistake it for a medical issue and call 911.  However, in most cases, EMS is not necessary.  The anxiety attack is self-limited and will go away on its own.  Several methods of taking control of the attack exist.  One of the easiest and most effective is encouraging the person experiencing the attack to regain control of the cognitive functioning.  This can be accomplished by asking the person to recite simple addition problems.  For instance, ask them “What is one plus one?  What is one plus two?  What is one plus three?” and so on, finally asking them to take over the addition problems.  Most people experience relief from the anxiety attack before they reach the fifth row.  This is generally a result of the frontal cortex resuming cognitive functioning, but it may be due to the person feeling self-conscious about the recitation.  Either way, the relief from the anxiety attack is generally very quick.

A panic attack is the same as an anxiety attack in most ways except the direction of the stimulus.  An anxiety attack results from a heightened state of anxiety, where a panic attack is an overwhelming sense of perceived danger.  Something is lurking out there waiting to hurt us; therefore, our limbic system becomes too stimulated and takes over.  The signs and symptoms of a panic attack and an anxiety attack a fairly indistinguishable.  The treatment for it is the same as that of an anxiety attack.Depression differs from an anxiety and a panic attack in that the limbic system does not hijack the system.  It also differs from sadness, which is generally accepted as a short-term event and clears fairly well with time.  Instead, depression slowly builds within a person and can eventually take over the person’s well-being and motivation.  Eventually it can grow to the point where Major Depressive Disorder takes over, and the person has no motivation to strive for anything, no desire to get out of bed in the morning, or no aspirations to socialize or carry on with daily activities.  It is believed that depression is a result of unresolved anger turned inward.  Most times, this process is insidious and the person has fallen victim to it without realizing.  Many methods of treatment exist for the different levels of depression, but one of the main treatments is to help the person find the source of the anger that is turned inward and deal with letting it go and moving on.  Contact us at 719-822-3387 or email us at contact@sc4i.org.

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