Perhaps you’re steering a cart through the grocery store, or sitting in a meeting. Without warning, you’re seized by a sense of danger. You become dizzy and short of breath. Your stomach churns, your heart pounds and you’re afraid you might collapse’maybe even die.
If this scenario sounds familiar, then you’ve likely experienced a panic attack. As disturbing as they may feel, these bouts are just an extreme form of a survival instinct: anxiety. That lack of calm has its uses, as a surge of adrenalin allows you to dodge an oncoming car, and stressing about a deadline gives you the energy to stay up late and finish the project. But for the 12 percent of Canadians with anxiety disorders, feelings of worry and fear are more than just the occasional jolt to the system. Instead, they’re a persistent, debilitating problem.
One of the main risk factors for anxiety disorders is family history. It isn’t known whether excessive anxiety is genetic or learned by children as they observe their parents, or both.
Certain evidence points to environmental factors: a 2010 study published in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy had a group of parents act anxiously about their children’s performances on an upcoming spelling test by pacing and saying things like, "Oh, this test might be too hard for you. I’m worried you won’t do well." In another test condition, the same parents then expressed confidence, saying, "I think you’ll do fine." In both circumstances, the kids garnered similar scores on the test, but when their parents expressed worry, they scored significantly higher on a scale measuring anxiety levels.
On the other hand, researchers recently identified genes that may help regulate anxiety, and are testing mice to find out whether variations in these genes make sure individuals more susceptible to stress.
A cruel irony of anxiety disorders is that sufferers can end up worrying about their worry. Some agoraphobes, for example, developed their fear of public spaces because they were afraid of having a panic attack, thus embarrassing themselves in front of strangers. Generalized anxiety disorder sufferers might fear their nervousness will cause them to perform badly at work and lose their jobs’as writer Daniel Smith narrates in his 2012 memoir, Monkey Mind.
On a brighter note, there are a number of fairly effective treatments to try, including pharmaceutical and drug-free options. The majority of sufferers can be helped by one or more of these, which, for what it’s worth, is one less reason to worry.