Agnes is a brilliant, 27-year-old software engineer with a multinational company and she is usually very confident in her abilities and accomplishments. However, she sometimes experiences intense worry and becomes very anxious about nothing in particular. During such episodes, she is often aware of her heart beating very fast, she starts sweating and finds it difficult to concentrate. At such moments, she usually has a feeling that something bad is about to happen and she truly becomes really scared. These episodes are causing her serious distress and she is afraid that she may be losing her mind or something. Thus, she discussed her concerns with her family physician who referred her to see a psychiatrist.
Fear is a normal biological protective mechanism that our body utilizes when faced with dangerous situations that may be harmful to us. It sets off, alarm bells in our heads, and prepares our bodies to cope with the emergency situation. This response is described in physiology as the ’fight-flight response.’ It ensures that our hearts beat faster; so they can supply our muscles with more blood – which carries the fuel required by the body (glucose and oxygen). The pupils of our eyes dilate, so we can see very clearly – to help us scan our environment for a weapon or an escape route from danger. Our muscles become tense and primed for action. We may sweat, and feel like emptying our bladder or bowels – all actions that are geared to reduce our body weight and get rid of ‘waste’ and unnecessary baggage. So, all of these reactions would occur, if, for instance, you enter your room and suddenly see a snake in one corner. You will either jump and look for a stick to kill it (fight response); or you quickly shut the door and run away, while calling for help (flight response). These responses are perfectly normal reactions to a threatening situation.
Anxiety disorders and phobias occur when individuals experience all the above physiological symptoms of fear, in the ABSENCE of any real threat or danger. The individual experiences a fast heart rate, starts sweating, may experience abdominal discomfort, and is tensed up, but is not exactly sure what they are worried or anxious about – as we saw with Agnes above. This may be in the form of free-floating anxiety or in rapidly escalating episodes of panic attacks. It is described as a phobia when it is characterized by a specific but exaggerated and irrational fear of an object (such as a spider) or a situation (such as heights or open spaces). Individuals who suffer from anxiety disorders often experience significant distress and which prevents them from carrying out their usual day-to-dayactivities. It is perfectly normal to have some anxiety just before an examination, or a job interview. The disorder line is crossed, where such anxiety begins to cause significant distress in otherwise normal situations, and/or interferes with functioning.
Types of phobias
Several types of phobias can occur but the commonest are
Social Phobia: Exaggerated fear or avoidance of being the focus of attention, or of behaving in an embarrassing or humiliating way. This fear becomes clear when they are required to interact in social situations or to speak publicly.
Agoraphobia: This is an excessive fear of being in open places, or in situations where a quick escape will be difficult, such as going to public places like the market, crowds, travelling away from home etc. Such people become very reclusive and socially withdrawn.
What are the causes of anxiety disorders?
Anxiety disorders can be caused by lots of things, depending on the individual and the sources of worry for you. They also depend on other factors such as your genes, family background, life experiences, and the way you instinctively cope with challenges. Indeed, identifying what makes you anxious and why they cause that reaction in you, may be the first step to managing your anxiety disorder.
Can they be treated?
Most certainly. Anxiety disorders are relatively straightforward to manage, and most individuals with some professional help, can very quickly learn to keep their anxiety in check and under control. Psychological treatment options include the use of psychotherapies, relaxation techniques such as deep breathing,and so on.
In some instances, there may be the need to also take some medications to control the feelings of overwhelming anxiety. But the outcomes are usually very good for all concerned. If you or someone you know has difficulties with anxiety disorders, speak to a mental health professional and the troubles will be over.
Dr Jibril Abdulmalik
Tribune Article for the column “Your Mental Health & You”
Thursday, 17th August 2023