Why do I have anxiety?
If you’ve ever had bouts of anxiety or a panic attack in your life, you’re bound to ask yourself “Why do I have anxiety?” There are many ways to answer this question. Below are responses from three different perspectives.
High Level: How anxiety is triggered
Anxiety is triggered in one of two ways: from mind to body or body to mind.
When traveling from mind to body, thoughts of worry trigger the body to have an anxiety reaction. For example, if you receive an unexpected email from your manager asking for a meeting later today, thoughts of “What does she want? Is she going to fire me?” could cause your body to have an anxiety response.
When anxiety happens from the body to mind, sudden physical symptoms that resemble anxiety create thoughts of worry. For example, if you are sitting at your desk and you feel your heart rate increasing, you might suddenly start to think “No, I’m going to have a panic attack.”
Biological: The Anxiety Brain
In either case, one part of the brain that is complicit in our anxiety is the amygdala. There are two of them, one on either side of the brain, located in the temporal lobe. Think of the amygdala as always being ready to scream danger. When it receives the “right” information from a sensory cortex (ex: visual cortex) or from the thalamus (the switchboard from all incoming sensory information) it triggers a fear response. The amygdala can overlearn to respond to information from the sensory cortex or thalamus, making it easier to become anxious over time.
Evolutionary Role of Anxiety
From an evolutionary perspective, the goal is to pass genes on to the next generation. Having a sense of anxiety and fear helps achieve this goal. Our ancestors passed on their genes, in part, from their ability to sense danger and survive. “I’m not going in that cave… why don’t you go check it out.” While current times are generally less dangerous, the ability to sense danger continues to have it’s advantages For example, being able to suddenly step on the breaks on the highway when someone swerves into your lane.