Q. I have had anxiety for years. Now my teenage daughter is expressing a concern about anxiety. What are the causes and can it be inherited?
A. A predisposition to anxiety appears to run in families. Research shows that individuals with anxiety often have an overly activated autonomic nervous system. This “fight or flight” system can become oversensitive to stress and is easily conditioned, thus causing anxiety reactions over a wide range of situations. Researchers also theorize that certain neurotransmitters in the brain become overly activated causing stressful reactions in some individuals.
Environment can be a contributing factor to developing anxiety. Individuals who are more concerned with negative outcomes rate higher on the anxiety scale than those who worry less. Parents who are overly protective or see danger in everyday situations may be a cause of their children developing fears. Negative interactions with peers and teachers can also create anxiety conditions. One patient I treated remembers that she was placed in the lower math group because she became anxious when she had a test. Her friends in the higher math group told her she was “slow.” The negative feedback increased her anxiety levels even more.
Some anxiety may be positive. As a psychology instructor, I have observed that students who are more concerned about the outcome of a test are more anxious before an exam, but statistically they make better grades. People with a higher level of anxiety often sense danger when others do not. One of my patients, who had a panic disorder, led her colleagues down the stairs of the World Trade Center to safety after her calm boss ordered them to stay. She lived. He died.
Anxiety should be treated when it interferes with social and/or occupational functioning. If it is not interfering with either, exercise or meditation may make you feel calmer. If it is interfering with your life, you should speak to your physician about medication or talk to a mental health professional.
Q. I have panic attack when I go into certain stores especially if it’s warm inside. I am staying home more because I’m so fearful. What can I do on my own to conquer panic?
A. First of all, never run from panic. If you leave a store or anywhere while you are having a panic attack, it will be even more difficult for you to return. People with panic disorders begin to associate that store with other stores or places where escape can be difficult or embarrassing.
Most panic attacks begin with a cognitive overreaction to a physical sensation. For example, if you become warm in a store, it may signal to you that a panic attack is beginning. Intervene at this point with positive self-talk. Acknowledge that the store is warm and that you often overreact to this stimulus. Refocus on things around you. Notice the people who are shopping, the colors, and the smells. Attempt to engage all of your senses.
There are several behavioral techniques that can help you manage panic. First, slow down your breathing. Put your hand on a pulse point so that you can feel your heart begin to beat more slowly. You may try chewing gum or having a cold drink. It often helps if you find someplace cool in the store or even touch something cold. Do not fight a panic attack because that will only worsen your symptoms.
The more you practice these techniques the easier they become. It is important that you continue doing all the things you enjoy in life and not let it be ruled by panic.
• • •
Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology. She teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College and maintains a limited private practice in Pine Bluff. If you have questions pertaining to mental health, e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org. The questions will not be answered personally, but could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all e-mails remain confidential.