How To Freak Yourself Out in Six Seconds Flat: Sensitization (and Other Causes of Anxiety)

Monday, June 15, 2015 by Meg   •   Filed under Anxiety

Have you ever felt completely overwhelmed at the thought of getting a work project done or making dinner? How about agitation at those around you for little cause? All of these things may be the result of an overly stressed system. Or not enough wine. But, probably, it's the stress. 

Too Much Stress Adds Up

The body and brain are wired to work together, which is why anxiety can be triggered either way. It's the difference between feeling anxious from that extra cup of coffee or anxious because you have to deliver a presentation; they both give you similar feelings, but with different root causes. 

However, that extra coffee in addition to a looming presentation can make things that much more difficult for the body to deal with. The project and the coffee become multiple slights to the same system. You get enough small stressful events and it doesn't take much more to reach panic levels. And that last little thing that triggers panic often makes people feel crazy or guilty when they find themselves having trouble breathing over something seemingly mundane.

It is a lot like a glass of water where each drop of stress hormone urges the anxiety system higher, until that last small drop causes overflow. 

Cue panic.

Understanding Sensitization     

Those with anxiety and depression (more here) often experience sensitization. Basically, they seem to have a water glass that has a start point a little bit higher than others.

Many experience this because they produce higher levels of stress hormones due to less than ideal early experiences. In these cases, stress primes the anxiety pump by triggering to brain to release higher levels of substances such as CRF (corticotropin-releasing factor) with each new stressful experience. Eventually,  it takes little obvious stress--if any--to trigger the system. And since CRF is what triggers the adrenal glands to pump out chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline, that means that it takes less and less to trigger higher amounts of those chemicals in turn.

Some individuals produce normal levels of hormones, but have trouble processing them out due to a physical system that isn't functioning properly because of lifestyle choices or metabolic issues. Many just succumb to American society which happens to be full of stressors to our system. Let's consider an example.

You're having a great day and are in a mellow mood. You are walking through your office when a fucking tiger leaps from behind a cubicle and into your path. He is purring and doesn't seem particularly threatening. Maybe he even rubs against your leg like a house cat. But your anxiety shoots through the roof, your breathing increases, your vision goes tunnel on you and you vomit. Before you can literally shit your pants, a zookeeper throws a net over the tiger and hauls it into a cage. Your heart rate is elevated for a little while, but after the tiger has been carted away, you calm down and go about your day.

This is the kind of scenario that the stress response evolved for, and how our body expects to respond. Today, we have the power of forethought which may lead to more issues, but for now let's assume that while you tense every time you turn a corner that week--and maybe have a bad dream or two--you realize that it was an isolated event. It may also be easier to accept your response--and the temporary anxiety--because you know exactly what caused your reaction.

The world is safe, except for that one tiger escape thing. Rational, right? 

BUT, if you were already stressed out when you saw the tiger, or if you had an otherwise  sensitized system, you are more likely to end up with post traumatic stress disorder or a pattern of scary thoughts from the same isolated experience, even with the friendliest of tigers. This is because the level of stress hormones already present changes how people respond to any given situation, including unexpected animals. 

More commonly today, instead of a large threat--like a predator trying to eat you--there are a bunch of smaller things that add a little to the mix until you're reacting like there is a tiger in front of you and not your douchebag boss.

Let's look at another, completely hypothetical and in-no-way-real example.

You had a shitty night's sleep, which has resulted in more free-flowing stress hormones in your system. You top it off with a cup of coffee and try to plow through your day at work. Then you realize that you left off a few references in a presentation and race to finish before it is due. On your way to the boardroom, you remember that you may have forgotten to pay your electric bill and you go into a full-blown panic attack, where your lungs start working overtime and you run to the bathroom to vomit...and maybe some other stuff (more on anxiety symptoms here).

Where's the tiger? Turns out there isn't anyone to lead him away, so what do you do? You can try to rationalize the fear and tell yourself that you have no logical reason to panic, but this somehow makes you feel worse.

"If it's no big deal, why am I so freaked out? What the fuck is wrong with me?"

These thoughts are especially common in those who are highly sensitized. Not only do they not need the tiger, they also don't need the coffee or the exhaustion or the boardroom stress to feel panicked. The higher the level of sensitization, the less drama it takes to go into tiger-flight mode. It might just take a sideways look from a coworker, or a long line at the bank. (Read more on the development of scary thoughts here.

In either case, it's not necessarily the final trigger that causes the anxiety. Unfortunately, when a final thought (or action or situation) seems to have caused panic, it is easy for the brain to misinterpret this as an actual threat. That may mean more violent responses the next time around as the brain triggers the adrenals to pump out more hormones sooner. If your brain associates all tigers with panic, that's probably okay, just ask Siegfried and Roy. But if it decides to associate the boardroom, presentations or paying the bills with increased anxiety, you've got a trickier road ahead, particularly if your adrenals respond to each and every experience with an ever higher level of stress hormone.

Ah, sensitization. As if anyone needs an extra reason to hate dealing with bills. 

"Fuck off, General Electric!"

While it may not be a comfortable experience, understanding what is occurring can make dealing with it easier as you tease apart the pieces to your anxiety puzzle. Finding ways to reduce the number of things to be stressed about may be a good start. Check out the posts below and the books listed at the bottom for more information on coping with these issues.   

Related Posts:

Topic-Relevant Resources

When Panic Attacks
Detailed overview of cognitive behavioral techniques for changing negative thought patterns

The Mindfulness Solution
Meditative and cognitive techniques for everyday use

Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior
Useful information and tools for addressing obsessive or scary thoughts and the behaviors that go with them.

The PTSD Workbook: Simple, Effective Techniques for Overcoming Traumatic Stress Symptoms
A useful tool in exploring personal trauma, with an emphasis on healing.

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation
New techniques for mindfully altering the wiring of your own brain, leading to increased happiness.