Friday, 12 February 2010

Anxiety: Flight or Fight?

Today I was teaching in a primary health care workshop.  Helping a variety of health care providers become comfortable with mental health competencies that could be used by family doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, social workers and other to provide mental health care to those that need it.
During the discussion about anxiety, we chatted about the way that anxiety makes us feel.  Many of the examples that people gave included the phenomenon of withdrawal, that is, avoidance of the situations in which we feel anxious.  That is surely true, and is one way that anxiety causes great difficulty for people.  This is one way in which anxiety leads to what we call functional impairment: the inability to do what you want or need to do because of the mental disorder.

But, there is another way that anxiety shows itself.  That is through aggression.  Yes, sometimes anxiety can lead to lashing out at others.  Have you ever been worried about someone who is late for dinner or late in meeting you at a movie?  What about the parent who is worried about where their child is late at night when it is an hour past the time that they were supposed to be home?  What often happens when your friend shows up or the child slinks into the house?

Right.  You got it.  Instead of being hugging and warm it is often the opposite that occurs.  You get angry and act annoyed.  The parent yells at their child.  Yelling is verbal aggression.  The anxiety has resulted not in avoidance but in attack!

That this happens should not be a surprise.  Remember that anxiety leads to the fight or flight response.  Avoidance is part of the flight and anger is part of the flight.  Yet another way that anxiety can make lives more difficult for people.

We often forget how much of a problem overwhelming anxiety can be.  Panic attacks, social anxiety, generalized anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder all have the potential to be quite disabling.  They can also all be treated and both avoidant behavior and attacking behaviors can be controlled.  In the next couple of months we will be posting a lot of new information on this website, much of it about anxiety.  Stay tuned!

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