Researchers have conducted both animal and human studies to pinpoint the particular parts of the brain that are involved in anxiety and fear. Because fear evolved to deal with danger, it sets off an immediate protective response without conscious thought. This fear response is believed to be coordinated by the amygdala, a structure deep inside the brain. Although relatively small, the amygdala is quite complex, and recent studies suggest that anxiety disorders may be associated with abnormal activity within it.
“One day, without any warning or reason, a feeling of terrible anxiety came crashing down on me. I felt like I couldn’t get enough air, no matter how hard I breathed. My heart was pounding out of my chest, and I thought I might die. I was sweating and felt dizzy. I felt like I had no control over these feelings and like I was drowning and couldn’t think straight.
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In people with anxiety disorders, the brain circuitry that controls the threat response goes awry. At the heart of the circuit is the amygdala, a structure that flags incoming signals as worrisome and communicates with other parts of the brain to put the body on alert for danger. Early life events, especially traumatic ones, can program the circuitry so that it is oversensitive and sends out alarms too frequently and with only minor provocations. Survival mandates a system for perceiving threats and taking quick, automatic action, but those with anxiety see threats where there are none, perhaps because emotional memories color their perceptions.
Some benefits of benzodiazepines are that they are effective in relieving anxiety and take effect more quickly than antidepressant medications often prescribed for anxiety. Some drawbacks of benzodiazepines are that people can build up a tolerance to them if they are taken over a long period of time and they may need higher and higher doses to get the same effect. Some people may even become dependent on them.
The disorder in younger children is less likely to have the symptoms that involve ways of thinking (cognitive symptoms). For example, panic attacks in children may result in the child's grades declining, decreased school attendance, and avoiding that and other separations from their parents. Both children and teens with panic disorder are further at risk for developing substance abuse and depression as well as suicidal thoughts, plans, and/or actions.
Cognitive therapy and exposure therapy are two CBT methods that are often used, together or by themselves, to treat social anxiety disorder. Cognitive therapy focuses on identifying, challenging, and then neutralizing unhelpful or distorted thoughts underlying anxiety disorders. Exposure therapy focuses on confronting the fears underlying an anxiety disorder to help people engage in activities they have been avoiding. Exposure therapy is sometimes used along with relaxation exercises and/or imagery.