Stress & Anxiety: When Our Survival Mechanism Backfires

Dr Jelena Goranovic

When Our Survival Mechanism Backfires...

Stress and anxiety problemsThe emotional experience of fear and the physiological stress reaction (the 'fight or flight' reaction: increased heart rate, faster breathing, sweating etc.) are very useful responses to dangerous situations or objects: our ancestors had it, apes and mice have it, even reptiles do. If it wasn't for this unconditioned response to danger, most species - humans included - would not have survived the natural selection. Apart from enabling us to fight, freeze or flee in the face of danger, the physiological stress reaction also enables us to learn to avoid the same dangerous situation or object in future.

But what happens when this useful survival mechanism backfires on us as it inevitably does now that we live in an environment where there are very few real dangers to our survival. Instead of the real predators, our stress response is chronically triggered by non-lethal threats, such as looming deadlines, annoying people, parking tickets... It is this chronic minor stress that results in a variety of psychological difficulties, including anxiety disorders and depression.

What are Anxiety Disorders?

Anxiety is an unpleasant feeling of fear and apprehension. Unlike the normal stress reaction described above, which serves an adaptive purpose as it helps us to deal effectively with threatening situations, the fear that characterizes anxiety disorders is excessive and debilitating as it actually impairs our ability to deal with difficulties.

If the fear has no discernible cause or is triggered by any number of situations which are incorrectly perceived as threatening or dangerous (the 'free-floating' anxiety, excessive worrying), the person is said to be suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). A disorder related to but quite different from GAD is the obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Sufferers of OCD are able to control and reduce their anxiety by performing certain behaviours, such as hand-washing, checking if the hobs are off, doors are locked etc. Such behaviours may produce a temporary reduction in anxiety but people feel compelled to repeat those actions over and over again to the point that such 'ritual behaviours' severely disrupt their daily life.

In contrast to the free-floating anxiety, excessive fear related to a specific object or situation which often leads to avoidance of such objects/situations is considered to be a phobia. Very often the fear experienced in the presence of a phobic stimulus (the feared situation or object) escalates into a fully blown panic attack: racing heart, breathing difficulties, shaking, dizziness, sense of terror and impending death, etc. Likewise, experiencing a panic attack for the first time in a particular context may lead to the development of phobia and subsequent avoidance of such contexts. When panic attacks occur regularly (either triggered by a specific stimulus or unprovoked), a person is said to be suffering from panic disorder.

A distinct category of anxiety disorders and probably the only one which is caused by real threats is the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As its' name says, PTSD is a disorder which develops following a serious life-threatening event (e.g. car accident, attack, etc.) although even non-life threatening but extremely disturbing experiences (e.g. abuse, childbirth, etc.) may also result in PTSD.

Published by Hove StressBusters
July 2012