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Biology 202
2004 First Web Paper
On Serendip

Anxiety: Simply Stage-Fright or a Daily Demon

Maja Hadziomerovic

Anyone who has ever been on a rollercoaster ride knows the sound of metal hitting metal as the safety bar bangs to close in front of you. A heavy sensation develops at the pit of your stomach as you are pulled up against gravity to the top of the ride. Fear and the weightless feeling of dropping down at inhumane speeds are soon to follow. Your heart races, you feel the palms of your hands sweating, and you know you have no control over your fate at this point. Well, imagine going though that every time you attempt to do a mundane daily task.

Anxiety is a part of the normal human pallet of feelings and emotions, and everyone has experienced it at one point or another. Weather it be the butterflies in one's stomach before a large performance, getting weak-kneed and tense before a date, or the fear of an approaching snake. It appears that the feelings of anxiety are a normal part of biology and the human experience, a type of defense mechanism in our sympathetic nervous system which functions on a "flight or fight" system. For some people, however, these moments of anxiety are not brief, mild, rare and isolated incidents like they are for most. Instead, anxiety is a constant and dominating force that goes far beyond the occasional nervousness and severely disrupts their quality of life. Anxiety disorders are chronic, relentless, and can grow progressively worse if not treated (2).

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States with 19.1 million adult Americans affected. The disorder manifests itself in a number of distinct but related forms that all share extreme debilitating anxiety at their core. The different types of anxiety disorders are as follows: Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Panic Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia), and Specific Phobia (5).

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is characterized by excessive, unrealistic worry that lasts for at least six months. It's chronic and fills ones day with exaggerated worry and tension, even though there is little or nothing to provoke it. GAD symptoms also include trembling, muscular aches, abdominal upsets, insomnia, irritability, and dizziness. GAD rarely occurs alone, so it is usually accompanied with another anxiety disorder, depression, or substance abuse (1). "I always thought I was just a worrier. I'd feel keyed up and unable to relax. At times it would come and go, and at times it would be constant. It could go on for days. I'd worry about what I was going to fix for a dinner party, or what would be a great present for somebody. I just couldn't let something go" (2).

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder involves anxious thoughts or rituals the individual feels they can't control. They are plagued by persistent and unwelcome thoughts or images and the urgent need to engage in certain rituals. Most people recognize that what they're doing is senseless, but they can't stop it. There is no pleasure in carrying out the rituals that they are drawn to, only temporary relief from the anxiety that grows when they don't perform them (1). "I couldn't do anything without rituals. They invaded every aspect of my life. Counting really bogged me down. I would wash my hair three times as opposed to once because three was a good luck number and one wasn't. It took me longer to read because I'd count the lines in a paragraph. When I set my alarm at night, I had to set it to a number that wouldn't add up to a "bad" number" (2).

People with Panic Disorder have feelings of terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly with no warning. Symptoms include heart palpitations, chest pain or discomfort, sweating, trembling, tingling sensations, feeling of choking, fear of dying, fear of losing control, and feelings of unreality. When people's lives become so restricted that they avoid normal everyday activities such as grocery shopping or driving, the conditions is called agoraphobia (1). "For me, a panic attack is almost a violent experience. I feel disconnected from reality. I feel like I'm losing control in a very extreme way. My heart pounds really hard, I feel like I can't get my breath, and there's an overwhelming feeling that things are crashing in on me" (2).

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a deliberating condition that can develop following a deliberating event. There are three main symptoms associated with PTSD: reliving of the traumatic event in the form of flashbacks and nightmares, avoidance behaviors, emotional numbing and detachment from others, and physiological arousal such as difficult sleeping, irritability, or poor concentration (1). "Then I started having flashbacks. They kind of came over me like a splash of water. I would be terrified. Suddenly I was reliving the rape. Every instant was startling. I wasn't aware of anything around me, I was in a bubble, just kind of floating. And it was scary. Having a flashback can wring you out" (2).

Social Anxiety Disorder, also called Social Phobia, involves overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social situations. People who suffer from it, have a persistent, chronic, and intense fear of being watched and judged by others and of being embarrassed and humiliated by their own actions. While many people recognize that their fear may be excessive or unreasonable, they are unable to overcome it (1). "In any social situation, I felt fear. I would be anxious before I even left the house, and it would escalate as I got closer to a college class, a party, or whatever. I would feel sick at my stomach-it almost felt like I had the flu. My heart would pound, my palms would get sweaty, and I would get this feeling of being removed from myself and from everybody else" (2).

A Specific Phobia is an intense fear of something that poses little or no actual danger. The level of fear is usually inappropriate for the situation and is recognized by the sufferer as being irrational. This inordinate fear can lead to the avoidance of common, every day situations (1). "I'm scared to death of flying, and I never do it anymore. I used to start dreading a plane trip a month before I was due to leave. It was an awful feeling when that airplane door closed and I felt trapped. My heart would pound and I would sweat bullets. When the airplane would start to ascend, it just reinforced the feeling that I couldn't get out. When I think about flying, I picture myself losing control, freaking out, climbing the walls, but of course I never did that. I'm not afraid of crashing or hitting turbulence. It's just that feeling of being trapped" (2).

It is interesting to examine how something that has evolved to help us survive, when in imbalance, impedes our daily life. Studies have shown that people with panic disorders might have a serotonin deficiency, or serotonin isn't being used correctly by the body. Experts believe that anxiety disorders are caused by a combination of biological and environmental factors (4). In general, there are two types of treatment available for anxiety disorders: medication and psychotherapy, which includes behavior therapy, cognitive therapy, and relaxation techniques. The goal of behavior therapy is to modify and gain control over unwanted behavior. Cognitive therapy is aimed at changing the unproductive or harmful thought patterns. Relaxation techniques help individuals develop the ability to deal with the stress that triggers anxiety as well as some of the physical symptoms associated with it (5).

However, because anxiety is something that everyone will experience at some point, many people and certain cultures do not consider it to be an illness or a problem. They may see it is a personality setback or a lack of self-control and will-power. As Student Contributor argued in her paper, "If it was not enough to subject adults to these ridiculous, socially constructed illnesses, we have decided to put our children through the same traumas" (3). As with any other disease, it is entirely possible for there to be a misdiagnosis for anxiety problems. However, I think that it would be more traumatic for the child to have the problem ignored and let them become overwhelmed with anxiety as the problem escalates, instead of recognizing it and using psychotherapy to teach them how to deal with it at an early age. Those who argue that anxiety disorders are not a problem do not realize that the frequency, intensity, and type of anxiety that a person with an anxiety disorder experiences is much different from the usual nervousness most stressed-out individuals feel from time to time. Thus it is unfair to compare the two on the same level.


1) Anxiety Disorders Association of America

2) National Institute of Mental Health

3) Anxiety Disorders

4) The Physiology of Panic Disorders, Part II

5) Treatments for Depression, Anxiety Treatments, and Stress Relief

6) Anxiety Disorder Association of Ontario

7) The Anxiety Panic Internet Resource

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