Imagine a long corridor, posters all over the walls, with notices of exam results posted far and wide. You walk towards a large classroom, filled with students, some huddled around on the tables and chatting loudly, while others are busy burying their heads in thick, padded books for some last-minute revision. You walk towards your group of friends, and all seems normal, nothing amiss. There are discussions of what everyone watched last night and how much revision they could fit into a week. This is just a normal pre-exam conversation, nothing to keep etched in your mind. But then there’s a loud booming voice, it is time for the exam to begin.
You and all your classmates shuffle quickly into your seats and the teacher starts handing out the exam papers. A paper is placed on your table, you are fine, the exam instructions are hastily read, you are fine, but as soon as the final bell rings, something feels off. Your eyes waver over the paper in your hand, you start shaking. Sweating, your racing heartbeats pay no heed to your mind telling it to calm down. Breathing heavily and with the pen in your hand slipping and your mind racing, you can barely focus on the exam. Your head rushes back to how you felt exactly the same way the entire week before the exam, but you pegged it to feeling sick due to the weather and convinced yourself that everything is perfectly okay. Now, with the looming examination in front of you once again, all the uncomfortable feelings of immeasurable fear and worries flood back to you.
Maybe this description hit too close to home, or maybe you have never faced this issue, but these are the symptoms of anxiety. We must have all heard the word anxiety thrown around in vain by people around us, be it friends, teachers, family, colleagues, anyone and everyone who is now familiar with this term. Even techniques to deal with it are becoming more and more common by the day. However, what is perhaps less focused on, daily, are the reasons behind these feelings of anxiety. According to Kaur et al (2020), anxiety can be defined as “frequently a diffuse, disagreeable, and awkward sentiment of fear, joined by at least one real sensation alongside an expectation of impending risk that distinctively repeats similarly in the person.” The biological symptoms of this feeling, as mentioned earlier, can be characterized by feelings of sudden fatigue, rapid heartbeat, unsteadiness, lack of sleep, sweating and even headaches.
Additionally, if the symptoms stated here are chronic, as in they are more prevalent in one’s life in a disproportionate and constant amount, even without there actually being a perceivable threat or danger, for more than six months, this can be categorized as an anxiety disorder. But please, please bear in mind that everyone who may have faced these symptoms in life does not automatically have a disorder. It is simply possible that feelings of anxiety left unattended could develop into one. This information is not meant to scare or to just ironically, promote more anxiety, but it simply to further educate and provide knowledge about the same. And for these reasons, it is important to tackle the root causes behind this feeling of nervousness. After all, solving things at the surface level is not always the solution.
So go forth and head-on into the depths of the reasons behind anxiety. The symptoms mentioned earlier are actually physical manifestations of both biological and cognitive mechanisms. But what are the possible cognitive mechanisms that could be linked to anxiety?
Biased thinking → We have all had moments of being biased, whether it is in daily situations when it comes to family or friends, or occasional instances. However, our thinking itself can be biased or disorder sometimes. Even though the behavioural manifestations of anxiety can differ, biased thinking may be a potential factor here. We might perceive something ambiguous or even a normal/neutral situation as something potentially dangerous. This occurs when anxious individuals tend to focus more on perceived threats, and even recall threatening or scary events more often and easily than the regular events. This causes such memories to be solidified as more anxiety-inducing, in both magnitude and duration, aligned with frequency. Moreover, since our cognition clearly plays a crucial role and controls how our body reacts, when in fear or while feeling frustrated, any negative thoughts or words said to oneself can further trigger feelings of anxiety.
Past experiences → Learning from past experiences, usually negative ones, can be a possible trigger for anxiety. An example here would be developing anxiety to fly in planes because of reading a lot about plane crashes. Consciously or unconsciously, past experiences or memories might influence symptoms of anxiety.
Stress → Daily stressors like being late for a meeting or a looming deadline or missing your train can cause anyone anxiety. But when this becomes long-term or chronic stress can lead to long-term anxiety and worsening symptoms, as well as other health problems. Stressors can be cognitive factors that may also lead to behaviours like skipping meals, drinking alcohol, or not getting enough sleep. All of this continues the cycle of anxiety, making the symptoms worse, thus being a cause behind anxiety.
Conflicts → Any arguments with anyone close or not close to you can once again present themselves through anxiety symptoms. This signals that the conflicts are creating a burden on your mind and body, and cannot cope with it.
The above-mentioned are some of the main cognitive factors, but just like there are physiological responses, there may be biological explanations for anxiety.
An imbalance of neurotransmitters → Not to get too technical but an imbalance of neurotransmitters has been regarded to be a factor in anxiety and anxiety disorders. To explain further, one has to understand what neurotransmitters are in the first place. As you may recollect from the gazillion school chapters spoken about in grade school, our nervous system consists of nerves and neurons. These nerves and neurons are basically the receivers and cells that deliver messages. These nerves are made up of neurons that aids with the transfer of chemical electrical messages. This is where the neurotransmitter centres. As one would have guessed, they are the chemical messengers, and they transit and communicate messages between the neurons. There are a variety of neurotransmitters floating around in our body that are linked to specific functions that the brain and body performs. The three main neurotransmitters that are generally associated with feelings of anxiety are serotonin, norepinephrine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
First, serotonin is what is linked with aspects of mood, sleep appetite. Which is why when there is an imbalance of neurotransmitter, that is reduced levels, it can be a factor that contributes to anxiety.
Norepinephrine, aka good ol’ noradrenaline, is also a stress hormone AND a neurotransmitter responsible for the physiological response of the well-known ‘fight-or-flight’. Thus, if norepinephrine is not balanced, it can be a contributing factor to anxiety.
Lastly, GABA plays a role in regulating feelings of excitement or agitation and inducing feelings of calmness, since it is also an inhibitory neurotransmitter.
Genetic factors → genetic factors might possibly create predisposition in individuals. What this means is, if someone has a relative or family member who has an anxiety disorder, or is anxious, then the chances of dealing with feelings of anxiety increases (Torgersen, 1983; Weissman, 1993; Goldman, 2001).
Medical conditions → They can cause anxiety symptoms due to the presence of already present medical conditions, especially those related to the organs of the heart, lungs or brains. Therefore the symptoms of anxiety that manifests could also be a due result of such a medical condition. Now, this is a more serious factor linked to anxiety, but once, bear in mind that this is just information and it is not meant to scare or diagnose anyone with anything.
Perhaps all these reasons overwhelmed you or maybe you already knew some of these. Nevertheless, here are some tips and tricks, albeit common ones, that might help reiterate how to deal with any uncomfortable anxious feelings:
Meditation/mindfulness → Meditation makes the person find the inner calm, by making them feel centred within themselves and grounding their thoughts in a safe place. Mindfulness helps by developing focus on the subtlest things and white noise and shifts the person’s attention from their chaotic mind to the immediate environment.
Journaling → Writing or journaling thoughts is a very powerful tool, as it can be done in that person’s own space at any time of the day. During this process, a person can collate their thoughts in one place and can reflect upon them one by one.
Exercise → Even exercising for 20 minutes has been shown to boost the level of endorphin neurotransmitters/ hormones which enhance one’s well-being and help ease their tension. Also, they are better health is a better quality of life, which in turn translates into less anxiety related to physical health issues
Yoga → Yoga helps in both mindfulness due to its relaxed form of postures (asanas) and also in bringing body flexibility thereby improving physical health.
Seeking the right form of help → This can be through counselling or psychotherapy, which is crucial to being guided on your journey appropriately.
And here we are! You now know the potential root causes of anxiety. Keeping all the above pointers in mind can help you analyze the possible causes of anxiety personally, and to gauge how to tackle them and proceed on a healing journey. However, if these anxious feelings and symptoms persist, affecting your daily functioning severely, kindly contact a professional immediately and seek help. Everyone needs a helping hand in their lives, and accepting this is only a sign of strength.
Please note:Refrain from making any assumptions based on the above-mentioned symptoms/factors in this article or anywhere else on the internet. Self-diagnosis is only detrimental and can be inaccurate. Always consult a professional!