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Anxiety: Hidden Causes
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Introduction (excerpt): Anxiety Isn’t "All in Your Head"
Cynthia is terrified of heights. While walking up or downstairs, taking an escalator or walking along a catwalk, she feels vertigo, loss of balance and terror.
Darlene has panic attacks that come out of nowhere. Suddenly, a wave of panic overcomes her – her heart races, her pulse throbs, the world spins, and she can hardly catch her breath. She feels as if she’s dying and losing her mind.
Ronald is afraid of leaving his house. When he does venture out, he often suffers a panic attack. The attacks come out of nowhere – sitting in church, shopping at the supermarket, standing in line at the bank, or driving down the street.
Abdul is constantly tense and nervous. He startles at the slightest noise, jumps at a stranger brushing past him, winces at bright lights and, as the day goes by, feels progressively fatigued and depleted. He worries constantly that he won’t make it through the day and meet his family and work obligations.
According to DSM-IV-R of the American Psychological Association all these sufferers have an anxiety disorder:
- Cynthia is phobic. She has an intense, irrational fear that realistically poses no real danger but causes her to panic.
- Darlene has panic disorder. She feels sudden inexplicable disabling terror, accompanied by racing heart, labored breathing, sweating, dizziness, and other symptoms evoked by the flight/fight response.
- Ronald suffers panic disorder with agoraphobia. He fears harm if he leaves the safety of his home and often has a panic attack when he does.
- Abdul has generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). He feels chronic and exaggerated tension, irritability, restlessness, concentration problems and worry and apprehension over matters most consider routine. As his worries build up, he has an anxiety attack.
In fact, none have mental illness.
- Inner ear dysfunction (which controls balance) triggers Cynthia’s height phobia.
- Mitral valve prolapse (a cardiac disorder) triggers Darlene’s panic attack.
- Type two diabetes (high blood sugar) triggers Ronald’s panic.
- Sensory defensiveness (hypersensitivity to ordinary sensation like a tap on the shoulder or a bright light) triggers Abdul’s generalized anxiety.
Anxiety disorders are the number one mental health diagnosis in the United States. At some point in their lifetime, one fourth of the population or some 65 million people will become incapacitated by anxiety, panic, or abnormal fears. Some 13 percent of the general population has reported at least one phobic reaction, the most common anxiety disorder, while 15 percent will experience panic attack symptoms during their lifetime, a horrifying experience. Almost half of the people who suffer repeated panic attacks develop major depression and 20 percent will attempt suicide. Two and a half million Americans develop obsessive/compulsive disorder, a complicated form of anxiety disorder characterized by uncontrollable, persistent or irrational thoughts and rituals.
Yet, an untold number of anxiety sufferers may not have any mental illness. If you are reading this book, there’s a good chance you may be one or know someone who is.
Anxiety symptoms are not specific to anxiety disorders.
- Sugar imbalance to heart problems to vitamin deficiencies can produce symptoms identical to a panic attack.
- Head injuries, brain tumors, strep throat, and encephalitis can create obsessive-compulsive behavior.
- Environmental pollutants and allergens can produce panic like symptoms.
- Sensory defensiveness produces generalized anxiety, panic, and even depersonalization.
- Fear of failure may emanate from undiagnosed sensorimotor and neurological deficits that impede competency.
Psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, social workers and mental health workers see behavior primarily from a psychopathology lens. They may be largely unaware that something physical, neurological, structural, sensory, or environmental can produce symptoms that mimic anxiety or panic. Confusing anxiety symptoms with cause, they quickly dispense a tranquilizer or anti-depressant pill and suggest psychotherapy.
Primary care physicians, the ones generally in the front line of patient complaints, see the world primarily through an allopathic lens of medical illness. If the cause of something is vague and doesn’t show up on standard tests like routine blood work, they tend to assume the patient to be stressed, neurotic, or a hypochondriac and dish out anti-anxiety drugs like candy, and particularly with women. One study found that women seen in the ER for chest pain and palpitations are far more likely given a diagnosis of anxiety and sent home with a prescription for a tranquilizer than to be fully evaluated for heart disease.
Such misdiagnosis and mistreatment of anxiety symptoms can have dire consequences. A serious organic condition such as hypoglycemia, hyperthyroidism, or a brain tumor can progress undetected and worsen.
In the meantime, you may be taking psychotropic medication unnecessarily, suffering side effects that, in some cases, may even worsen your anxiety, and become dependent on the drug and addicted. You may be struggling in psychotherapy that is expensive, time consuming, unnecessary, and often completely misses the mark. Years may go by as drugs, psychotherapy and often an endless pursuit of self-help techniques and stress reduction strategies fail to pay off. Invalidated, confused, frustrated and still anxious, you feel at a loss. How do you dismantle hurdles if you don’t know what they are! Feeling weird, neurotic, weak, and even a bad person, you blame yourself for your symptoms. Unable to cope successfully with ordinary situations, you may watch your career and personal life fall apart without knowing how to stop the downfall. Despairing of getting better, you become depressed as well as anxious.
How do you know if the primary trigger of your anxiety symptoms is biological? Here are some guidelines:
- Sudden, unexplainable and random panic
- Irritation or even panic to:
- Bright lights
- Loud or piercing noises
- Odors others don't notice
- Light touch
- Certain textures
- Sickness or light-headedness from chemicals in the environment that others find innocuous
- Giddiness when confronted with heights or vast space; easily losing balance; vertigo
- Disorientation, confusion, or spaceyness
- Heightened agitation, tension, anxiety or panic that has not responded effectively to psychotropic drugs or therapy
- Anxiety and panic in absence of obvious psychological markers:
- Relationship problems
- Low self-esteem
- Unstable emotions
- Anxiety predictably at certain times of the day:
- Following a meal
- After consuming too much sugar, carbohydrates or caffeine
- Anxiety predictably in response to:
- Smoking cigarettes
- Feeling uncomfortably hot or cold
- Feeling overwhelmed by an overstimulating environment
- Being under the influence of drugs or alcohol or when trying to stop consumption
- Menstruation, childbirth, or menopause for women
Part one consists of five chapters that discuss how digestive problems, medical illness, hormonal imbalance, and immune system overload can mimic anxiety and panic.
Part two consists of three chapters that discuss how the nervous system becomes unbalanced and produces neuropsychiatric symptoms that can present as an anxiety disorder. It covers brain injury, hyperventilation, and structural misalignment.
Part three consists of four chapters that discuss problems related to sensory processing, balance, and light.
Part four consists of four chapters that discuss the grand nervous system destabilizers: toxins from our food, drugs, and environment; electromagnetic radiation.
To help you discover the potential cause or causes of your symptoms, each chapter includes an explanation of the disorder, its symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment options, both conventional and alternative, and a list of resources at the end of the chapter.
By the end of the book, you should have an idea of what drives your anxiety or panic – something in your mind, head, body, posture, the environment, or a combination thereof. The conclusion discusses how to pursue a diagnosis and treatment for specific problems triggering your angst.