The etiology of most anxiety disorders, although not fully understood, has come into sharper focus in the last decade. In broad terms, the likelihood of developing anxiety involves a combination of life experiences, psychological traits, and/or genetic factors. The anxiety disorders are so heterogeneous that the relative roles of these factors are likely to differ. Some anxiety disorders, like panic disorder, appear to have a stronger genetic basis than others (National Institute of Mental Health [NIMH], 1998), although actual genes have not been identified. Other anxiety disorders are more rooted in stressful life events.
It is not clear why females have higher rates than males of most anxiety disorders, although some theories have suggested a role for the gonadal steroids. Other research on women’s responses to stress also suggests that women experience a wider range of life events (e.g., those happening to friends) as stressful as compared with men who react to a more limited range of stressful events, specifically those affecting themselves or close family members (Maciejewski et al., 1999).
What the myriad of anxiety disorders have in common is a state of increased arousal or fear (Barbee, 1998). Anxiety disorders often are conceptualized as an abnormal or exaggerated version of arousal. Much is known about arousal because of decades of study in animals2 and humans of the so-called “fight-or-flight response,” which also is referred to as the acute stress response. The acute stress response is critical to understanding the normal response to stressors and has galvanized research, but its limitations for understanding anxiety have come to the forefront in recent years, as this section later explains.
In common parlance, the term “stress” refers either to the external stressor, which can be physical or psychosocial in nature, as well as to the internal response to the stressor. Yet researchers distinguish the two, calling the stressor the stimulus and the body’s reaction the stress response. This is an important distinction because in many anxiety states there is no immediate external stressor. The following paragraphs describe the biology of the acute stress response, as well as its limitations, in understanding human anxiety. Emerging views about the neurobiology of anxiety attempt to integrate and understand psychosocial views of anxiety and behavior in relation to the structure and function of the central and peripheral nervous system.
Acute Stress Response
Normally, when someone is in a serene, unstimulated state, the “firing” of neurons in the locus ceruleus is minimal. A novel stimulus, once perceived, is relayed from the sensory cortex of the brain through the thalamus to the brain stem. That route of signaling increases the rate of noradrenergic activity in the locus ceruleus, and the person becomes alert and attentive to the environment. If the stimulus is perceived as a threat, a more intense and prolonged discharge of the locus ceruleus activates the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system (Thase & Howland, 1995). The activation of the sympathetic nervous system leads to the release of norepinephrine from nerve endings acting on the heart, blood vessels, respiratory centers, and other sites. The ensuing physiological changes constitute a major part of the acute stress response. The other major player in the acute stress response is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is discussed in the next section.
In the 1980s, the prevailing view was that excess discharge of the locus ceruleus with the acute stress response was a major contributor to the etiology of anxiety (Coplan & Lydiard, 1998). Yet over the past decade, the limitations of the acute stress response as a model for understanding anxiety have become more apparent. The first and most obvious limitation is that the acute stress response relates to arousal rather than anxiety. Anxiety differs from arousal in several ways (Barlow, 1988; Nutt et al., 1998). First, with anxiety, the concern about the stressor is out of proportion to the realistic threat. Second, anxiety is often associated with elaborate mental and behavioral activities designed to avoid the unpleasant symptoms of a full-blown anxiety or panic attack. Third, anxiety is usually longer lived than arousal. Fourth, anxiety can occur without exposure to an external stressor.
Other limitations of this model became evident from a lack of support from clinical and basic research (Coplan & Lydiard, 1998). Furthermore, with its emphasis on the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, the model could not explain why medications that acted on the neurotransmitter serotonin (the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs) helped to alleviate anxiety symptoms. In fact, these medications are becoming the first-line treatment for anxiety disorders (Kent et al., 1998). To probe the etiology of anxiety, researchers began to devote their energies to the study of other brain circuits and the neurotransmitters on which they rely. The locus ceruleus still participates in anxiety but is understood to play a lesser role.
New Views About the Anatomical and Biochemical Basis of Anxiety
The hippocampus and the amygdala govern memory storage and emotions, respectively, among their other functions. The hippocampus is considered important in verbal memory, especially of time and place for events with strong emotional overtones (McEwen, 1998). The hippocampus and amygdala are major nuclei of the limbic system, a pathway known to underlie emotions. There are anatomical projections between the hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalalamus (Jacobson & Sapolsky, 1991; Charney & Deutch, 1996; Coplan & Lydiard, 1998).
Studies of emotional processing in rodents (LeDoux, 1996; Rogan & LeDoux, 1996; Davis, 1997) and in humans with brain lesions (Adolphs et al., 1998) have identified the amygdala as critical to fear responses. Sensory information enters the lateral amygdala, from which processed information is passed to the central nucleus, the major output nucleus of the amygdala. The central nucleus projects, in turn, to multiple brain systems involved in the physiologic and behavioral responses to fear. Projections to different regions of the hypothalamus activate the sympathetic nervous system and induce the release of stress hormones, such as CRH.4 The production of CRH in the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus activates a cascade leading to release of glucocorticoids from the adrenal cortex. Projections from the central nucleus innervate different parts of the periaqueductal gray matter, which initiates descending analgesic responses (involving the body's endogenous opioids) that can suppress pain in an emergency, and which also activates species-typical defensive responses (e.g., many animals freeze when fearful).
Anxiety differs from fear in that the fear-producing stimulus is either not present or not immediately threatening, but in anticipation of danger, the same arousal, vigilance, physiologic preparedness, and negative affects and cognitions occur. Different types of internal or external factors or triggers act to produce the anxiety symptoms of panic disorder, agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, specific phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder, and the prominent anxiety that commonly occurs in major depression. It is currently a matter of research to determine whether dysregulation of these fear pathways leads to the symptoms of anxiety disorders. It has now been established, using noninvasive neuroimaging, that the human amygdala is also involved in fear responses. Fearful facial expressions have been shown to activate the amygdala in MRI studies of normal human subjects (Breiter et al., 1996). Functional imaging studies in anxiety disorders, such as PET studies of brain activation in phobias (Rauch et al., 1995), are also beginning to investigate the precise neural circuits involved in the anxiety disorders.
What is especially exciting is that neuroimaging has furnished direct evidence in humans of the damaging effects of glucocorticoids. In people with post-traumatic stress disorder, neuroimaging studies have found a reduction in the size of the hippocampus. The reduced volume appears to reflect the atrophy of dendrites—the receptive portion of nerve cells—in a select region of the hippocampus. Similarly, animals exposed to chronic psychosocial stress display atrophy in the same hippocampal region (McEwen & Magarinos, 1997). Stress-induced increases in glucocorticoids are thought to be responsible for the atrophy (McEwen, 1998). If the hippocampus is impaired, the individual is thought to be less able to draw on memory to evaluate the nature of the stressor (McEwen, 1998).
Psychological Views of Anxiety
More recent behavioral theories have emphasized the importance of two types of learning: classical conditioning and vicarious or observational learning. These theories have some empirical evidence to support them. In classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus acquires the ability to elicit a fear response after repeated pairings with a frightening (unconditioned) stimulus. In vicarious learning, fearful behavior is acquired by observing others’ reactions to fear-inducing stimuli (Thorn et al., 1999). With general anxiety disorder, unpredictable positive and negative reinforcement is seen as leading to anxiety, especially because the person is unsure about whether avoidance behaviors are effective.
Cognitive factors, especially the way people interpret or think about stressful events, play a critical role in the etiology of anxiety (Barlow et al., 1996; Thorn et al., 1999). A decisive factor is the individual’s perception, which can intensify or dampen the response. One of the most salient negative cognitions in anxiety is the sense of uncontrollability. It is typified by a state of helplessness due to a perceived inability to predict, control, or obtain desired results (Barlow et al., 1996). Negative cognitions are frequently found in individuals with anxiety (Ingram et al., 1998). Many modern psychological models of anxiety incorporate the role of individual vulnerability, which includes both genetic (Smoller & Tsuang, 1998) and acquired (Coplan et al., 1997) predispositions. There is evidence that women may ruminate more about distressing life events compared with men, suggesting that a cognitive risk factor may predispose them to higher rates of anxiety and depression (Nolen-Hoeksema et al., in press).
The anxiety disorders are treated with some form of counseling or psychotherapy or pharmacotherapy, either singly or in combination (Barlow & Lehman, 1996; March et al., 1997; American Psychiatric Association, 1998; Kent et al., 1998).
Counseling and Psychotherapy
During the past several decades, there has been increasing enthusiasm for more focused, time-limited therapies that address ways of coping with anxiety symptoms more directly rather than exploring unconscious conflicts or other personal vulnerabilities (Barlow & Lehman, 1996). These therapies typically emphasize cognitive and behavioral assessment and interventions.
The hallmarks of cognitive-behavioral therapies are evaluating apparent cause and effect relationships between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, as well as implementing relatively straightforward strategies to lessen symptoms and reduce avoidant behavior (Barlow, 1988). A critical element of therapy is to increase exposure to the stimuli or situations that provoke anxiety. Without such therapeutic assistance, the sufferer typically withdraws from anxiety-inducing situations, inadvertently reinforcing avoidant or escape behavior.
The therapist provides reassurance that the feared situation is not deadly and introduces a plan to enhance mastery. This plan may include approaching the feared situation in a graduated or stepwise hierarchy or teaching the patient to use responses that dampen anxiety, such as deep muscle relaxation or coping. One fundamental principle is that prolonged exposure to a feared stimulus reliably decreases cognitive and physiologic symptoms of anxiety (Marks, 1969; Barlow, 1988). With such experience generally comes greater self-efficacy and a greater willingness to encounter other feared stimuli. For panic disorder, interoceptive training (a type of conditioning technique) and breathing exercises are often employed to help the sufferer become more capable of recognizing and coping with the social cues, antecedents, or early signs of a panic attack. Cognitive interventions are used to counteract the exaggerated or catastrophic thoughts that characterize anxiety. For treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder, the strategy of response prevention must be added to exposure to ensure that compulsions are not performed (Barlow, 1988).
There is now extensive evidence that cognitive-behavioral therapies are useful treatments for a majority of patients with anxiety disorders (Chambless et al., 1998). Poorer outcomes are observed, however, in more complicated patient groups. With obsessive-compulsive disorder, approximately 20 to 25 percent of patients are unwilling to participate in therapy (March et al., 1997). Another major limitation of cognitive-behavioral therapies is not their effectiveness but, rather, the limited availability of skilled practitioners (Ballenger et al., 1998).
It is possible that more traditional forms of therapy based on psychodynamic or interpersonal theories of anxiety also may prove to be effective treatments (Shear, 1995). However, these therapies have not yet received extensive empirical support. As a result, more traditional therapies are generally deemphasized in evidence-based treatment guidelines for anxiety disorders.
The four benzodiazepines currently widely prescribed for treatment of anxiety disorders are diazepam, lorazepam, clonazepam, and alprazolam. Each is now available in generic formulations (Davidson, 1998). Among these agents, alprazolam and lorazepam have shorter elimination half-lives—that is, are removed from the body more quickly—while diazepam and clonazepam have a long period of action (i.e., up to 24 hours). Diazepam also has multiple active metabolites, which increase the risk of “carryover” effects such as sedation and “hangover.” Benzodiazepines that undergo conjugation appear to have longer elimination time in women, and oral contraceptive can decrease clearance (Dawlans, 1995). Since Asians are more likely to metabolize diazepam more slowly, they may require lower doses to achieve the same blood concentrations as Caucasians (Lin et al., 1997).
Benzodiazepines have the potential for producing drug dependence (i.e., physiological or behavioral symptoms after discontinuation of use). Shorter acting compounds have somewhat greater liability because of more rapid and abrupt onset of withdrawal symptoms.
Because the benzodiazepines do not have strong antiobsessional effects, their use in obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder is generally viewed as palliative (i.e., relieving, but not eliminating symptoms). Rather, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder are more effectively treated by antidepressants, especially the SSRIs (as discussed below). When effective, benzodiazepines should be tapered after several months of use, although there is a substantial risk of relapse. Many clinicians favor a combined treatment approach for panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, in which benzodiazepines are used acutely in tandem with an antidepressant. The benzodiazepines are subsequently tapered as the antidepressant’s therapeutic effects begin to emerge (American Psychiatric Association, 1998).
Clomipramine, a tricyclic antidepressant (TCA) with relatively potent reuptake inhibitory effects on serotonin (5-HT) neurons, subsequently was found to be the only TCA to have specific antiobsessional effects (March et al., 1997). The importance of this effect on 5-HT was highlighted when the SSRIs became available. By the late 1990s, it became clear that all of the SSRIs have antiobsessional effects (Greist et al., 1995; Kent et al., 1998).
Current practice guidelines rank the TCAs below the SSRIs for treatment of anxiety disorders because of the SSRIs’ more favorable tolerability and safety profiles (March et al., 1997; American Psychiatric Association, 1998; Ballenger et al., 1998). Nevertheless, there are patients who respond to the TCAs after failing to respond to one or more of the newer agents. Similarly, although relatively rarely used, the monoamine oxidate inhibitors (MAOIs) have significant antiobsessional, antipanic, and anxiolytic effects (Sheehan et al., 1980; American Psychiatric Association, 1998). In the United States, the MAOIs phenelzine, tranylcypromine, and isocarboxazid (which has not been consistently marketed this decade) are seldom used unless simpler medication strategies have failed (American Psychiatric Association, 1998).
The five drugs within the SSRI class—fluoxetine, sertraline, paroxetine, fluvoxamine, and citalopram—have emerged as the preferred type of antidepressant for treatment of anxiety disorders (Westenberg, 1996; Kent et al., 1998). In addition to well-established efficacy in obsessive-compulsive disorder, there is convincing and growing evidence of antipanic and broader anxiolytic effects (American Psychiatric Association, 1998; Kent et al., 1998). Treatment of panic disorder often requires lower initial doses and slower upward titration. By contrast, treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder ultimately may entail higher doses (for example, 60 or 80 mg/day of fluoxetine or 200 mg per day of sertraline) and longer durations to achieve desired outcomes (March et al., 1997). As all of the SSRIs are currently protected by patents, there are no generic forms yet available. This adds to the direct costs of treatment. Cost may be offset indirectly, however, by virtue of need for fewer treatment visits and fewer concomitant medications, and cost likely will abate when these agents begin to lose patent protection in a few years.
Other newer antidepressants, including venlafaxine, nefazodone, and mirtazapine, also may have significant antianxiety effects, for which clinical trials are under way (March et al., 1997; American Psychiatric Association, 1998). Paroxetine has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for social phobia, and sertraline is being developed for post-traumatic stress disorder. Nefazodone, which also is being studied in post-traumatic stress disorder, and mirtazapine may possess lower levels of sexual side effects, a problem that complicates longer term treatment with SSRIs, venlafaxine, TCAs, and MAOIs (Baldwin & Birtwistle, 1998).
When effective in treating anxiety, antidepressants should be maintained for at least 4 to 6 months, then tapered slowly to avoid discontinuation-emergent activation of anxiety symptoms (March et al., 1997; American Psychiatric Association, 1998; Ballenger et al., 1998). Although less extensively researched than depression, it is likely that many patients with anxiety disorders may warrant longer term, indefinite treatment to prevent relapse or chronicity.
Buspirone does not block panic attacks, and it is not efficacious as a primary treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (Stahl, 1996). Buspirone is most useful for treatment of generalized anxiety disorder, and it is now frequently used as an adjunct to SSRIs (Lydiard et al., 1996). Buspirone takes 4 to 6 weeks to exert therapeutic effects, like antidepressants, and it has little value for patients when taken on an “as needed” basis.
Combinations of Psychotherapy and Pharmacotherapy
2 Anxiety is one of the few mental disorders for which animal models have been developed. Researchers can reproduce some
3 Hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, and then the cortex, or outer layer, of the adrenal gland. Upon stimulation by the pituitary hormone ACTH, the adrenal cortex releases glucocorticoids into the circulation.