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The science behind anxiety

Whether you’re preparing for an exam or a job interview, or just waiting to receive some important news, we’ve all felt anxious at some point in our lives. Normal feelings of anxiety become problematic, however, when they escalate and start to impair our ability to function day-to-day. 

Why do I become anxious?

Let’s say you have an interview for a job you really want. You want to perform well in the interview but you’re worried that you might not. This apprehension sends a signal to the emotional control centre in your brain called the amygdala. The amygdala will then tell the rest of your brain that there is something you should be scared of, also known as the fight-or-flight response. 

Once this response is generated, a few things will happen. The amygdala will send a signal to release a number of hormones including adrenaline, cortisol and noradrenaline. Each of these hormones has a different effect on the body. 

For example, noradrenaline will increase our heart rate and release more glucose from our energy stores. Cortisol will increase our blood sugar, which can make us feel more alert or jumpy, while adrenaline will dilate our blood vessels and suppress metabolism. 

While these responses might seem excessive, the fight-or-flight response was originally needed by humans to fight off predators rather than prepare for job interviews!  

When does anxiety become a problem?

Anxiety disorder is an umbrella term that can cover a range of disorders such as panic attacks, generalised anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

Becoming anxious about things like job interviews is totally normal. An anxiety disorder is diagnosed when the anxiety starts to have a negative impact on everyday life. For example, generalised anxiety disorder occurs when someone suffers excessive anxiety and worry for over 6 months. 

The symptoms vary from person to person but generally they will find themselves worrying and overthinking about things that normally wouldn’t cause anxiety. They might also suffer from sleep disturbances, trouble concentrating and restlessness. 

Potential Treatments

The most common treatment for excessive anxiety is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which can teach you to cope in a healthier way. An appointment with your GP is the first step towards dealing with any potential condition.

If you’re interested in more articles on mental health, visit the Vhi Health Hub.