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The Mood & Mind Centre

Psychology Clinic

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Understanding Anxiety

Posted on 10 December, 2019 at 20:35

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a human emotion that occurs when you’re confronted with a possible threat, danger or negative event, particularly something over which you have little control. Our Amygdala (aka the danger detection system in our brain) scans the environment for possible threats and will trigger the Fight-Flight-Freeze Response if it detects danger. In ancient times, threats/danger were when lions were chasing us but these days threats are a lot different and it can include things like being rejected; bullied; excluded; personally attacked or your integrity could be questioned, to name just a few. Unfortunately the Amygdala cannot distinguish between lions chasing us and modern day threats and will cause the same physiological response in your body. When you feel anxious, your body becomes aroused.

You may experience muscle tension, increased heart rate, and other physical changes. Your attention also becomes more focussed on the possible source of the threat as well as on your own functioning) for example, on your feelings of arousal. This process is designed to help you prevent or avoid possible danger in the future and is called hypervigilance.

Hypervigilance makes it hard to concentrate and you might start to worry, which involves making plans to disarm the perceived threat. Finally, anxiety is often associated with avoidance. You may try to avoid situations that you perceive as threatening or your own experiences, like physical sensations or anxiety-provoking thoughts.

Anxiety vs Fear

Anxiety is focussed on some future threat and fear is an intense emotional reaction to an immediate threat or danger (like snakes)

The benefit of Anxiety

Anxiety and fear serve a useful function! Yes they are unpleasant, but you wouldn’t want to be entirely rid of them. You need them to survive! Just as you might adjust the sensitivity of the smoke detector so that it stops blaring when you are cooking, your goal here is to adjust your anxiety and fear so that they turn on only when they’re appropriate to the situation. In some way people with an Anxiety disorder has an overly sensitive smoke detector which can be adjusted through therapy.

Types of Anxiety

Generalized Anxiety: An excessive amount of anxiety or worry in several areas of life, such as job responsibilities, health, finances, or minor concerns (e.g. completing housework).

Specific Phobias: A very intense fear of a specific situation or object, which is out of proportion to its actual threat. For example, a fear of giving speeches, or of spiders, could be considered a phobia.

Panic Disorder: An extreme anxious response where a person experiences a panic attack. During a panic attack, the individual experiences numerous physical symptoms, and is overwhelmed by a feeling of dread.

Agoraphobia: Fear or avoidance of multiple situations due to thoughts that escape might be difficult or help might not be available in the event of developing panic-like symptoms.

Social Anxiety/Social Phobia: Avoidance specifically of social situations in which the person will be exposed to the scrutiny of others.

Separation Anxiety Disorder: Avoidance of situations that involve being away from major attachment figures, including refusing to go out of one’s house because of a fear of separation from your attachment figure.

Treatment of Anxiety

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a very effective treatment for anxiety. During CBT, the unhealthy thinking patterns that create anxiety are identified, and challenged by the psychologist. Oftentimes, CBT will also include components of exposure therapy and relaxation skills.

Exposure Therapy

During exposure therapy, the therapist and their client create a plan to gradually face anxiety producing situations, thus breaking the cycle of avoidance. With enough exposure, the anxiety loses its power, and the symptoms diminish.

Relaxation Skills

Various techniques—such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness—provide immediate relief from the symptoms of anxiety. With practice, relaxation skills will become a powerful way to manage anxiety in the moment.


Medication can help control the uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety. However, because medication does not fix the underlying problems of anxiety, it is typically used in conjunction with therapy. The need for medication varies greatly, case-by-case.

What do I do now?

Book an appointment with a psychologist and discuss your symptoms with them. Your psychologist will be able to tailor a treatment program specifically for you and your situation.

You don’t have to suffer from Anxiety for the rest of your life. It is possible to manage Anxiety effectively and live a fully functional life, so take the step and book an appointment with a Psychologist today.

Written by: Irene Vermooten Clinical Psychologist, The Mood & Mind Centre

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