Understanding Mental Illness : Anxiety Disorders
Author: Aida Helena
Picture yourself, terrified of cockroaches and having the threat of a nest of cockroaches in your kitchen,hidden from plain sight. Let’s say in this context you cannot call pest control professionals. Every single time you’re in the kitchen you feel extremely jumpy at every single brush of dust on your skin, you cannot think of anything else but roaches, roaches, roaches. Seems like you are exaggerating, but being in the kitchen causes your heartbeat to increase and you constantly feel sick and worried at the thought of having those roaches crawl or fly towards you. You can’t possibly face them so you do the next obvious thing, avoid the kitchen and just order takeout, to the dismay of your wallet.
Such is a brief illustration of a person suffering from anxiety disorders, except anxiety patients can feel this way quite regularly, and it can be related to just about anything ranging from social situations to even daily interactions with objects. Classic symptoms of anxiety range from uncontrollable worry about basically anything, difficulty in decision-making, difficulty in concentrating, and avoidance behaviour. Anxiety affects people of all ages including children.
If these symptoms sound like you, do not worry! Anxiety is also what any normal mentally healthy person may face from time to time, since many situations can cause us to feel this way. However, if you ever feel like this emotional state is debilitating or affecting your day-to-day activities, do seek help.
Needless to say, the stigma surrounding mental health problems including anxiety disorders is an obstacle - one that stems primarily from a lack of understanding. Therefore, as a cognitive neuroscience student, I would like to briefly explain the mechanics of anxiety in the neuroscience point of view :
After years and years of research evidence, the common brain parts involved in anxiety disorders include the amygdala, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), the anterior cingulate cortex, the hippocampus and the insula, but for the sake of your attention span in this article I would just be talking about the amygdala.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped group of neurons. You have two of them, located in the frontal portion of your brain in the temporal lobe, which is somewhat in the two sides of your head.
The amygdala is labelled here. Image from shutterstock.com
To give you a brief overview of the function of our brain’s own set of almonds, in old studies where rats had their amygdalae lesioned or removed, they had a higher tendency to approach cats which were asleep compared to rats with intact amygdalae. This would mean that one of the functions of the amygdala is in the expression of fear, where its activation causes you to feel afraid. Other functions of the amygdala include being involved in attention and memory, learning, and in other types of emotional arousal besides fear.
However, when a person has an anxiety disorder, their amygdala would tend to over-activate in response to perceived threat. This means that even though threat may not even be physically present, sustained fear may still be present. There are many reasons why this could occur, one being a “disorganisation” of neural firing resulting in an overall overactivation of the amygdala. One form of this disorganisation is the reduction in inhibition of the amygdala due to lack of inhibitory signals to this brain part. Mechanisms of why this disorganisation occurs is still being researched to this date, but currently most of the answer lies in the combination of a person’s genetic makeup and his/her environment, especially during crucial development stages, like childhood and adolescence. For instance, if a person is naturally more vulnerable to stressful environments, having an abusive childhood or unresolved bad experiences may cause them to develop an anxiety disorder. Drugs and alcohol can also trigger an anxiety disorder, since they influence neural firing in many areas of the brain, including and not limited to the amygdala. One important thing to note is that there are many pathways involved in the manifestation of anxiety involving many parts of the brain.
Thus, more research to illuminate us all on how, why and when anxiety can happen is crucial and much needed. Moreover, since anxiety is so vast and so complicated in the sense that it can be different in different people, research in anxiety pathology must involve interdisciplinary efforts of a wide range of fields, including and not limited to molecular biology, behavioural neuroscience, clinical psychology and even computer science.
Now you know some of the neural bases of anxiety disorders, if you suspect that you or anyone you know is suffering from it, please seek help or push them to seek help! See your doctor, or better, visit a mental health specialist. There are also a bunch of organisations in Malaysia that help raise awareness and help individuals with mental health issues such as these, including and not limited to :
Besides that, there are methods you can try on your own to help alleviate anxiety. One method that is to get more physical activity. Exercise has been reported to reduce symptoms of anxiety, because exercise promotes the release of “feel good hormones” such as endorphins which has been said to “put people in an euphoric state” and “reduce pain”. Another possible reason why exercise does help with anxiety is because exercise training recruits a process in our body that makes us more resilient to stress. One way to think about this is that if you can run in a marathon, or even just go for regular 30 minute runs, the commitment and the mind space you gain from this activity indirectly trains you to be able to mentally withstand life’s obstacles.
Before I end MBIOS’ very first blog post I would like to stress how important it is to destigmatise mental illness in our society. All of us are special beings with our own minds and everyone deserves to be their best selves. If we want to be a progressive nation, we need everyone to realise this, to eventually bring out the best our country deserves.
Peace and love,
Some jargon-heavy references:
Craske, M. G. et al. Anxiety disorders. Nat. Rev. Dis. Primers 3, 17024 (2017).
Rasia-Filho, A. A., Londero, R. G., & Achaval, M. (2000). Functional activities of the amygdala: An overview. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.carbon.2011.03.019
Anderson, E., & Shivakumar, G. (2013). Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 4. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00027
Other references :