By guest contributor to THE SOCIAL RESERVE: Jennifer Messenger
Anxiety. Just upon just saying the word a tightness forms at the base of my throat—it’s an all too familiar feeling. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million or 18% of people 18 and older in the United States suffer from one of the many varying forms and degrees of anxiety. Anxiety is a very normal reaction to events such as divorce, the death of a loved one, a change in career, a move to a new city, or any other event that essentially alters a person’s day to day life.
Anxiety, in all its forms, from social anxiety to PTSD creeps into the quiet moments of life and threatens the very foundations of who we are. That is why it can feel like such an uncontrollable force in our bodies and minds.
I was always the shy kid in elementary school who clung to the teachers rather than making friends, and in college I was the student who never participated in class discussions. When I had something to say, I sat sweating and twirling my hair, going over and over again in my head what I wanted to say, but completely unable to raise my hand. Given that history, it is no surprise that anxiety has been lately gripping me again. Everything in my life has changed in the past few months; I left my husband and my home, I started a new job, and I had my heart broken by the first person I had feelings for in ten years other than my husband. In short, it’s been a struggle that has fueled many long nights of remarkable suffering and has lead me to explore what exactly this anxiety is.
To start at the beginning, threat is at the heart of anxiety, it is the initial flight or fight response when faced with danger. According to evolutionary psychology, anxiety persists from its original use as a reaction to threat. As evolution goes, those with the best ability to perceive threat and react to it appropriately (escape, or fight when escape is not possible), were more likely to survive. Thus, anxiety has been passed down to the best of us. These days the types of threat that we were originally made up to perceive are less prevalent, and other threats to our mental well-being take up that space.
According to Henry Emmons, writer of “The Chemistry of Calm,” fear is a three layered circuit system in the brain: