What Causes Anxiety?

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This post explains how anxiety emerges from the interaction of perceptual and neurological processes, and explores what this means for those contending with anxiety.

Disclaimer: I am a therapist specializing in the treatment of anxiety and anxiety disorders. I am not, however, licensed to practice internal medicine. Because of this, and because anxiety symptoms can sometimes be the result of an underlying physical condition, you should consult your primary care physician if you experience symptoms of anxiety. As most anxiety is psychological in origin, and is usually best treated through therapy, it is a good idea to get connected to a mental health counselor in your area. You may also wish to supplement your anxiety treatment with medications such as benzodiazepines or SSRIs. For this, you will need a prescription from your Primary Care Physician (PCP), a Psychiatric MD (Psychiatrist), or a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner (ARNP). If you live in the Seattle area and would like some referrals, feel free to shoot me an email. My email is blake@seattleanxiety.com

What we don’t know about anxiety… 

Anxiety is not just an uncomfortable emotion, it is also often a confusing one. The confusions that surround anxiety can exacerbate it, can cause it to snowball. When we do not understand why we feel anxious, or what to do about it, we may become increasingly anxious about becoming anxious. Anxiety feeds on confusion and uncertainty.

Too much of the information that is available on anxiety fails to explain how anxiety comes about, and as such does little to dispel this uncertainty. The most common way of explaining why people get anxious is by appeal to situational triggers. Now, this is not an unimportant part of the story about why we get anxious, but it is certainly not the part that is mysterious to those suffering from anxiety. Most anxiety sufferers do not need anyone explaining to them that certain situations make them feel more anxious. They get it. They also tend to have a pretty good grasp on what those situations are.

Usually, mention of the mechanisms by which anxiety comes about are entirely missing from discussions on the subject. This is forgivable, seeing as anxiety is both physiologically and psychologically quite complex. Furthermore, most of those who write in a public format about anxiety (e.g., in blog posts or magazines) are not clinicians (psychologists, psychiatrists, etc.), but are instead people sharing their experiences of dealing with anxiety - something that is of course also quite valuable and which has an entirely different aim.

In what follows, I want to give a sketch of the mechanisms that conspire to bring about anxiety. This will not be a complete sketch and will not be without exception. However, it will be thorough and general enough to give you a sense of what's happening when you're experiencing psychogenic anxiety (anxiety with a psychological origin). Note that while most anxiety symptoms are psychogenic, some anxiety symptoms are somatogenic (arising from a physical rather than a psychological cause). Because of this, you should consult your primary care physician if you experience anxiety symptoms. They will be able to help you determine if your symptoms are the result of an underlying medical condition. Setting somatogenic causes aside, however, we can turn our attention to how the brain, in collaboration with other parts of the nervous system, manages to generate anxiety.

The Autonomic Underpinnings of Anxiety

Your autonomic nervous system plays an important role in the emergence of anxiety, so much so that certain of its behaviors are often conflated with anxiety - even sometimes by psychologists. Now, the autonomic nervous system is automatic (“auto-”), meaning that it does its own thing (you do not get to just pick and choose when it does what it does), and lawlike (“-nomic”), meaning that there are very few exceptions with regard to its behavior.

Your autonomic nervous system is split into two sub-systems. There is the sympathetic division (sympathetic nervous system) and the parasympathetic division (parasympathetic nervous system). These two subsystems are in a kind of competition for resources, meaning generally that when one is more activated the other will be less activated.

Parasympathetic system activity is often associated with calmness and relaxation. The parasympathetic system plays an important role in a number of processes, many of which we might think of as vegetative - things like digestion, automatic breathing, sleeping, and the physical aspects of sexual arousal. The sympathetic system, by contrast, is often associated with alertness and excitation. When we are in a state of sympathetic arousal we may experience increasing heart rate, constricted blood vessels, increased blood pressure, pupil dilation (and tunnel vision), perspiration, as well as muscle tension and twitching.

As sympathetic activity increases it can lead to parasympathetic deactivation. Because the parasympathetic division controls digestion, this can bring with it a shutdown of digestive processes, leading to symptoms such as dry mouth, loss of appetite, and even nausea. Other symptoms of parasympathetic deactivation include “forgetting to breathe” (a shutdown of automatic breathing and a need to start breathing intentionally), difficulty becoming sexually aroused, and difficulty falling asleep. This transition can even lead to increased (sometimes unintentional) urination and voiding of the bowels.

Because sympathetic activation is often experienced as a kind of discomfort, habits can easily form as a means of repressing it. Usually, these are habits that stimulate a countervailing parasympathetic response - for example, eating food, drinking alcohol, and engaging in autoerotic activity (i.e., masturbation).

Now, a lot of these features of sympathetic arousal are recognizable as symptoms of anxiety. And because of this, there is a common error that gets going right here. It is easy to look at sympathetic arousal and say “That's it. That's anxiety!”, but we should resist this temptation. Because although sympathetic arousal plays an important role in anxiety, it is not itself anxiety. And it is not just that sympathetic arousal is not anxiety… it is not even an emotion, not in itself anyway - although it does play a foundational role in a number of emotions including anxiety, anger, and excitement. 

The Role of Perception in Anxiety and Other Emotions

With sympathetic arousal identified as a necessary ingredient in the emergence of anxiety, we are left with two questions. First, where does sympathetic arousal come from (what triggers it)? And second, how does this arousal lead to anxiety? The answer to both of these questions is perception - but that needs quite a bit of unpacking.

Perceptions are the primary triggers of sympathetic activity - specifically, perceptions of challenges. Here, challenges can be conceptualized as gaps between the way things are and the way they should be - gaps that are at least in principle bridgeable - even if only by very rickety bridges. Sympathetic activity increases as perception of challenge increases (in terms of quantity, significance, complexity, and so forth).

If you have a lot of sympathetic activity, that is almost certainly because you perceive lots of challenges. You see challenges within challenges, and challenges within those challenges. Sometimes, you might feel overwhelmed by all of these challenges - you might feel like you are drowning in challenges. And at the risk of sounding pollyanna, I want to suggest that this is a very good problem to have. After all, the fact that you are perceiving so many challenges tells us that you are really quite perceptive. Your perceptiveness, in turn, is mostly just a function of intelligence, creativity, and functioning sensory organs. This is a set of assets, perhaps some of your greatest assets, that have somehow managed to become a liability - again, perhaps your greatest liability.

With the path to sympathetic activation laid out, we can turn our attention to how it becomes anxiety. But because anxiety is an emotion, we should first ask ourselves “what is an emotion?” This is a psychological question that, much like the question of anxiety, does not get the consideration it deserves. In part this is because it is often difficult to answer such an abstract question in a way that is not just trivially circular (as in: “it's how you feel.”). A good initial answer turns out to be quite simple, but surprisingly unintuitive.

Emotion is an ever present part of our experience. Just as a sentence is always said in some tone or other, we are always in some mood or other, always experiencing things from some emotional state or other. Even a Spock like “absence of emotion” is still technically an emotional state - a subtle, pervasive, and unrelenting calm.* Now, our emotional state is much more complex than Spock’s - we might simultaneously feel anxious about certain things, calm about others, angry about some things, sad about some, and so on and so forth. An emotion is a way of perceiving ourselves in relation to something, and we are in relation to very many things.

Our emotional state is determined both by which of these relations we are bringing our attention to and how we are bringing our attention to them. This second piece is crucial because it means that our emotional response to something depends on how we perceive it - not just that we perceive it - and there are a number of different ways to perceive sympathetic nervous system activation. This activation is the foundation, the somatic referent, for the anxious and fearful family of emotions. However, it is also the foundation for other high energy emotions, including anger and excitement.

*Anyone who has actually watched Star Trek will know that Spock's emotional life is much more complex than this caricature - but it is a helpful caricature nonetheless.

Anxiety - Too Much of a Good Thing

The crux of the issue is that there are those who suffer from a lack of life and those who suffer from an overabundance of it. 

The dull and the depressed both suffer from a lack of life in their own way. Dullness carries with it a lack of sympathetic arousal because it is grounded in a lack of perceptiveness… meaning fewer challenges are perceived, and even when they are perceived their full gravity and complexity is usually not apprehended. Depression also rests on an, albeit temporary, inability to perceive challenges. But here it is not perceptiveness that is wanting. The difference is more nuanced. In depression there is an acute awareness of gaps, of distances between the way things are and the way things should be. But in depression, many of these gaps seem unbridgeable. And if they can't be bridged, they don't show up as challenges… only as occasions for sadness. When what is wrong seems like it cannot be made right, actions become pointless for us - at the limit, everything seems pointless: getting out of bed… bathing… living. Nothing is off limits. 

However, it is not in the lowest depths of depression that one is at the highest risk for suicide. Most dangerous is the beginning of the ascent out from these depths. For it is here that one is beginning to see more gaps as challenges - it is here that energy again comes back, that the potential for action returns - it is here that sympathetic arousal begins again in earnest. 

In the face of challenges, sympathetic arousal gives us this energy, a kind of life, and it is up to us to figure out what to do with it. There is much at stake here. For if we cannot embrace it, if we reject this energy, this life, it will not just go away. It stays there, coursing through our veins. Without an outlet, it stagnates there, sours, and rots. Turned inward, that energy becomes a liability and a source of profound misery.

What Causes Panic Attacks?

Perception of challenges increases sympathetic arousal, and in anxiety our sympathetic arousal is experienced as a kind of challenge - as a problem that we need to do something about. We see what is happening in our body as a roadblock to overcoming many of the other challenges in our lives - often in proportion to how important those challenges are. This makes anxiety unique among challenges. It is a kind of meta level challenge that has its fingers in all the other important challenges we face. In this way it takes on a seriousness, a weight, through which it exacerbates itself. 

When we see sympathetic arousal as a challenge, our sympathetic arousal increases. Again, this is because sympathetic arousal is tied to perceptions of challenge. This increase in our sympathetic arousal in turn also increases our perception of the challenge. It is a vicious circle. As it turns, we increasingly begin to feel that things are going to be difficult or uncomfortable. As we watch our sympathetic arousal increasing - and with it our anxiety - we may worry that it will continue to increase. Again, this makes the challenge appear even greater. With such a great challenge on our hands we will be tempted to try and understand, not just its trajectory (which at this point seems dire), but also its origin. Such a profound set of symptoms can seem like it demands a profound explanation - for example, that we are having a heart attack - that we are dying.

Anxiety, and at the limit panic, comes as if out of nowhere - feeds on uncertainty, feeds on ignorance, feeds on itself.

Archetypal Lessons from Anxiety

There are a number of archetypal lessons that crop up for us once we see what's happening in anxiety. For example, notice that the hero and the coward are neurologically quite similar. What ties them together is their perception of challenges - challenges that others around them, more neurotypical individuals, might not notice. In response to noticing all these challenges, they are saddled with heightened sympathetic arousal. One of them experiences this arousal as an asset, as readiness for action, as excitement - as courage. However, the other experiences this same sympathetic arousal as a liability, as an inability to act, as anxiety - as cowardice.

Perhaps the most salient perceptual difference between the hero and the coward, shows up in their locus of control. The coward experiences things as happening to them, as being changed, while the hero experiences themselves as the source of this change. The coward experiences the world impinging on them, while the hero sees themselves as impinging on the world. Cowards feel powerless. They feel vulnerable - like things are out of control. The transition from coward to hero is experienced as a loss of one's powerlessness.

Similarly, we notice a kind of neurological similarity between predator and prey. When prey is in the presence of a predator, its sympathetic nervous system is activated. By design, the prey experiences this activation as anxiety, as a profound discomfort that tells it it needs to run for its life. The predator also experiences sympathetic arousal in these situations - that is, whenever it is in the presence of prey. However, the predator does not experience anxiety. Quite the opposite. The predator experiences their sympathetic arousal as excitement.

The Short-Term Goal of Therapy for Anxiety

Anxious individuals often assume that the best course of action is to try and feel more calm. They want to be more like Spock when faced with a stressful situation - cool under pressure. However, this is just one alternative among many. There are a number of ways to experience something other than anxiously and calmly. This isn't a criticism of anxious individuals. Far from it. We all do this. Our cultural understanding of anxiety frames the issue in this way. 

When we feel anxious, it is normal to feel like prey, as if a predator is bearing down on us. What our anxiety seems to be telling us is that we need to escape. And although we might dream of being magically transported to safe space, free from challenges - how prey might feel if they were transported to a perfect garden, full of abundance, without a predator for hundreds of miles - we also dream of being able to handle these stressful situations without having to escape. Our highest dream is one of being able to go through these situations calmly, without having a strong emotional response to them. 

While these are attractive visions, they both fail to respect lived psychological realities. We cannot feasibly escape from the things that are provoking our anxieties - nor can we “just snap out of it” or “just calm down”. These visions are unhelpful, tending only to produce an onslaught of additional negative emotions such as shame and depression when we inevitably find ourselves unable to make them a reality.

It is important to emphasize that this Spock-like image of how we should behave in stressful circumstances is a kind of culturally constructed norm. That anxious people should be calm, and that becoming calm should be easy; these are some of the most widely held beliefs about anxiety. Again, this is an attractive image, but it is also a false image - one that, like the fantasy of a world free from challenges, fails to correspond with human psychology.

The actionable lesson that falls out of this understanding of anxiety is that excitement is often an easier emotional space to access than calmness. By reframing what is ahead of us as exciting rather than as threatening, we can begin to feel less anxious. Similarly, by reframing what is happening in our body during moments of sympathetic arousal as energy or excitement, rather than as anxiety, we can come to feel less anxious. 

Accessing this perspective, a vision of ourselves as capable, a vision of ourselves as free from vulnerability - this is what is required to transform our emotional life. Unfortunately, this is not an easy task. Sometimes individuals can manage this reframe on their own, but often psychotherapy is needed. This is the short term goal of psychotherapy for anxiety - to help individuals transition from anxiety into excitement. 

The Long-Term Goal of Therapy for Anxiety

The long term goal of therapy for anxiety is calmness. How this is achieved has less to do with reframing and more to do with investigating deeply rooted beliefs, interpersonal tensions, insecurities, and so forth that may be generating a distortion in their view of the world and of themselves - a distortion that exacerbates their perception of challenge and keeps them in a chronic state of heightened sympathetic arousal. 

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