Unless you are so laid back you’re horizontal, you are likely to have had the misfortune of feeling anxious at some point in your life. Whether it was a big presentation, a driving test, or a social encounter, anxiety can happen because of numerous triggers; everyone is different. In a world of social pressure and increasing recognition of mental health, let’s understand why we get anxious and the symptoms that come with it.
Despite teaching and performing, I still struggle hugely with presentations. Before a recent presentation I couldn’t eat properly for a week, my heart was in my ears, I felt dizzy, feverish, and as though I might throw up at any second. As soon as the presentation was over, most of the symptoms vanished as if I’d imagined them but the adrenaline rush lasted a while, before a big come down the following day. What happened was a small anxiety attack. I’m lucky that I only suffer such attacks before presentations but for some it can strike at any moment. Let’s investigate this evolutionary trait and why some are more affected by it than others.
When we were cavemen there were a lot of dangers to be aware of. Anxiety is defined as a physiological and emotional response to a threat the brain perceives. The human brain will respond identically to real and unreal danger, leading to the well known fight-or-flight response, causing a surge in the hormone adrenaline. This is great if you are fleeing a bear, but not so helpful if you’re just wanting to complete your weekly shop. The release of adrenaline causes your heart rate and blood pressure to increase, prepping you to run away from the danger your brain is sensing. Your brain is responsible for determining if the threat is real and you need to run like the wind, or the threat is unreal (e.g. you watched a scary movie) and you can forget about it.
Your brain must distinguish between anxiety and fear, even though their physiological responses are virtually identical; not an easy job. Our brains can learn over time to differentiate between these two situations. However, anxiety comes about when the brain cannot do this, or if the flight-or-fight response is triggered too easily. For someone with an anxiety disorder, their brain has learnt to see the world as more dangerous than it is, and can result in a reaction of terror for the individual.
Without anxiety we would not know to run from danger but for some, it can be debilitating. Currently coping strategies (e.g. CBT) and anti-anxiety medications (e.g. such as propranolol which can slow a sufferers heart rate) are most commonly prescribed. What else is under current research? One treatment which has had media coverage lately, is that of microdosing hallucinogenic drugs. The study was conducted on rats and documented in the Journal ACS Chemical Neuroscience, published last month (March, 2019). The hallucinogenic drug under investigation is DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine). Two previous studies have been conducted on humans but were very short and not rigorous. The newest study however lasted two months and monitored the rats throughout. The rats received microdosed DMT for the two months and completed memory, maze and swim tests during this period which were meant to represent situations that could mimic human responses to fear, stress, anxiety and depression. High doses caused the rats to become more anxious, but the microdoses showed the rats became less anxious during testing. The study did not show an initial reduction in fear, but the microdosing appeared to help them deal with the triggers better.
This type of treatment is obviously in very early stages, and the likelihood of big pharmaceutical funding, or government approval is small at this point. However, current medications do not work for everyone and can have some unwanted side-effects. It is therefore always beneficial to keep exploring new avenues. Anxiety can blight people in different ways but for some, as we have mentioned, it can debilitate them. This evolutionary response was once much more useful than it is today. However, with continued research, we can hope that we will have more ways to treat and cope with conditions such as anxiety.