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  • Writer's pictureAnneka Barrett

A brief history of anxiety - part 1 of the anxiety series

Anxiety is a common and very real illness which is gaining an increasing awareness and treatment within modern medicine as well as through talking therapies. Unsurprisingly the Office of National Statistics has reported a sharp increase in those suffering from anxiety over the past twelve months. Living through a global pandemic is bound to increase anxiety levels. It’s scary to have our worlds turned upside down and to be in fear of something we can’t even see. Before Covid the ONS reported an 11% rise in anxiety levels from 2018 to 2019. Generally this level has been slowly increasing for a number of years.

So why are we all anxious? What’s causing it? This is the first of a three part series where I want to explore anxiety with you. We are going to look at the history of anxiety, the causes and recognising the signs all the way to treatments and coping paths to support you in getting to grips with some of your anxious feelings.

The term ‘anxiety disorder,’ was coined in the 1980s which is a relatively short time ago when you consider the suffering of anxiety is as old as humans. Anxiety is, at its core, a malfunction of the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. When humans first roamed the earth this reaction kept us safe from danger. It was the instinct that told us not to pet the fluffy saber-toothed tiger. When your fight or flight is malfunctioning your mind is alerting you to danger that is not there.

As a species it took us a long time to get a handle on anxiety as we know it today. The ancient Greeks referred to it as ‘hysteria,’ they thought panic was caused by the uterus which made it an inherently female disorder. Thanks ancient Greeks! Sadly it didn’t get much better for women as the centuries went on. During the early Renaissance, women in particular who were highly anxious and prone to “hysteria” were often accused of being witches. Premonitions about bad things happening, if they proved true, would suggest to others their witchy nature or be used against them by their enemies in a courtroom.

It wasn’t until the 1800’s during the American Civil war reports of men suffering from heart palpitations, or as they were called then, ‘irritable heart syndrome’ or ‘nerve weakness’ began to appear in medical logs. Naturally they didn’t burn the men alive like the women in the 1500s; the men were treated with opium.

Modern treatments of anxiety didn't begin to appear until the 1950s. At this stage when someone presented with symptoms of anxiety they were given electroshock therapy or sometimes exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is the repeated exposure to the thing/ situation that triggers your anxiety. It wasn’t until the sixties the medical profession discovered antidepressants could help with the symptoms of anxiety and that talking therapies proved useful in supporting people to manage their anxiety. A further twenty years was needed before hysteria and panic was given the term anxiety disorder. To me it is shocking to think it took 14,000 years for humans to get from hysteria to anxiety disorder.

Next week I’m going to be looking at the cause of anxiety and what these symptoms can look like.

Remember whatever you are going through you aren’t alone.

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