In my last article, “Anxiety: A Sign of the Times”, I discussed the difference between anxiety, fear, and worry. I also pointed out how anxiety can serve an adaptive function. Like pain, anxiety can alert us to danger and motivate us to take corrective action. When fear and anxiety function as God intended them to, they serve us well. When this is not the case, fear and anxiety can become pathological and lead to impairment in one’s life. Here I plan to look at how anxiety becomes disordered.
Anxiety is that “subjectively unpleasant feeling” that accompanies fear. Fear is said to be rational when it is related to a legitimate danger or threat. When the threat is imagined or exaggerated, the fear is considered to be irrational. So, pathological anxiety is anxiety that is greatly disproportionate to the threat and or continues even though the threat is gone. Allow me to illustrate with a couple of examples.
In Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) an individual was exposed to a danger that involved the threat of loss of life or serious injury. Once the person is removed from the danger and is safe, he continues to have recollections of the danger (flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive memories). These recollections produce a quite similar anxiety reaction to when the original threat was present. Treatment involves a cognitive processing of the traumatic memories and management of the intense anxiety.
Panic Disorder is another problem where one experiences intense anxiety that is out of proportion to any legitimate threat. It involves a malfunctioning of one’s “flight or fight mechanism.” The flight or fight mechanism exists in our brain to signal our body to take action when we encounter a threat. This action occurs in our central nervous system and is experienced as anxiety. The problem is that this mechanism doesn’t know the difference between real and imagined or exaggerated danger. Hence one is having an intense physiological and anxiety reaction that seems beyond his control. Treatment involves a de-conditioning process accompanied by anxiety management techniques and cognitive restructuring (changes in one’s thinking).
The above are just two of about ten different anxiety disorders that one could experience. All of them involve anxiety that is disproportionate to any threat. Anxiety disorders can come upon a person suddenly, with or without apparent cause. Other times, they build slowly over time and are the result of incorrect learning and negative experiences. Some individuals seem to have inherited a personality type that is generally more reactive and more prone to the development of an anxiety disorder. Also some individuals grow up in an environment that is unstable, dysfunctional, or chaotic which results in frequent threatening situations and the triggering of the flight or flight mechanism.
Regardless of the reasons one might develop excessive anxiety or an anxiety disorder, God is remarkable in how He works to redeem us. He has allowed us to develop certain therapy techniques along with some helpful medications that are very effective in helping those with anxiety disorders. Additionally, His word gives us truth to focus on when our thinking is in disarray. More importantly, the Holy Spirit is actively working to redeem what the sin in this world has defiled. If you or someone you know is suffering from anxiety, pursue help so that your life may be what God intended.
Dr. Tom Barbian, LPC
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