Defining Anxiety

Anxiety is the body's natural response to danger, an automatic distress that goes off when you feel susceptible, under pressure, or are facing a stressful situation. Most people feel anxious when facing a challenging situation, such as a job interview, a tough exam, or making important decision.

In moderation, anxiety isn't always a bad thing. In fact, anxiety can help you stay alert and focused. But when anxiety is constant or overwhelming, when it interferes with your relationships and activities, it stops being functional. That's when you've crossed the line from normal anxiety into the subject of anxiety disorders.

There are many types of anxiety disorders that include panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.

Scientists are looking at what role genes play in the development of these disorders and are also investigating the effects of environmental factors such as pollution, physical and psychological stress, and diet. In addition, studies are being conducted on the path the illness takes without treatment.

Several parts of the brain are key actors in the production of fear and anxiety. Using brain imaging technology and neurochemical techniques, scientists have found that the amygdala and the hippocampus play significant roles in most anxiety disorders.

The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure in the brain that is thought to be a communications center. It can alert the rest of the brain that a threat is present and trigger a fear or anxiety response. Memories stored in the central part of the amygdala may play a role in anxiety disorders involving very distinct fears, such as fears of dogs, spiders, or heights. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that encodes threatening events into memories.

Anxiety attacks, also known as panic attacks are episodes of intense panic or fear. Anxiety attacks usually occur suddenly and without warning. Sometimes there's an obvious trigger, for example, or thinking about the big speech you have to give.

Not everyone who worries a lot has an anxiety disorder. You may be anxious because of an overly demanding schedule, lack of exercise or sleep, pressure at home or work, or even from too much coffee. The bottom line is that if your lifestyle is unhealthy and stressful, you're more likely to feel anxious, whether or not you have an anxiety disorder. So if you feel like you worry too much, take some time to evaluate how well you're caring for yourself.

Anxiety disorders respond very well to treatment and often in a short amount of time. The specific treatment approach depends on the type of anxiety disorder and its severity. But in general, most anxiety disorders are treated with behavioral therapy, medication, or some combination of the two.

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