What You Should Know About Anxiety
Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. For example, we’re all familiar with the anxiety of trying to meet a deadline or make a big decision. But people with anxiety disorders have chronic anxiety that interferes with their ability to live a normal life. An anxiety disorder is a mental disorder, and there are several recognized types of anxiety. Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental illness in the United States, affecting about 18 percent of the population according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The good news is there are several treatment options and self-help tools that can help you manage an anxiety disorder.
Symptoms of an Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety symptoms vary by person, and they can include emotional and physical symptoms. The primary symptom of an anxiety disorder is excessive or irrational worry or fear.
Emotional symptoms of anxiety may include:
•Anticipating the worst-case scenario
•Feelings of dread
Physical symptoms of anxiety may include:
•Shortness of breath
•Twitches, tremors, or tense muscles
Sometimes people with an anxiety disorder experience what’s known as an anxiety attack, which comes on suddenly. Anxiety or panic attacks may be triggered by something such as needing to give a speech or they may come without warning. Most anxiety attacks last less than 30 minutes, but the terror of an anxiety attack can be very frightening. Many people believe they are having a heart attack during an anxiety attack because of symptoms such as heart palpitations, chest pain, a choking sensation, hyperventilation, hot flashes, and trembling.
What Causes Anxiety Disorders?
Researchers aren’t sure exactly what causes anxiety disorders, but it’s likely caused by a number of factors. Anxiety disorders are not the result of a character flaw or weakness, however.
It’s believed that anxiety disorders are caused by many factors like environmental stress, brain stress, and genetics. Like other brain disorders, anxiety can be the result of problems with the way the brain functions and regulates emotions and fear. Research has found that people with long-lasting anxiety or stress actually change the way nerve cells in their brains communicate. Some studies have also found that people with certain types of anxiety have changes in some brain structures that control memories.
Researchers do know that anxiety tends to run in families and the risk for an anxiety disorder can be passed from one or both parents. It may be triggered by an environmental factor as well such as trauma.
Common Types of Anxiety
Anxiety disorders are a group of similar conditions, and they can vary a great deal between people. Everyone experiences anxiety differently, but they all come with severe or persistent fear in situations that would not be worrisome to most people.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
People who have generalized anxiety disorder worry constantly or have a persistent feeling that something bad is about to happen. GAD can interfere with daily life by making you feel anxious almost constantly, even though you do not know why you are anxious. Generalized anxiety disorder often displays with physical symptoms like fatigue, an upset stomach, and insomnia. This is the most common type of anxiety, affecting about 3 percent of the U.S. population (6.8 million adults), and about twice as many women as men.
Social Anxiety Disorder
About 15 million adults in the U.S. have social anxiety disorder. People with social anxiety disorder have a crippling fear of being viewed negatively by others or publically humiliated. Many people mistakenly believe someone with social anxiety disorder is merely shy, but the disorder goes much deeper. While some degree of shyness or fear of some social situations — such as public speaking — is normal, social phobia can disrupt your life.
Many people with social anxiety disorder have a deep and irrational fear of doing something embarrassing or stupid and they view public situations as potentially frightening. Unlike people who are shy, people with a social phobia will avoid normal socialization. Many display avoidance behavior which makes it harder to seek treatment. A 2007 survey found that more than one-third of people with this type of anxiety disorder do not seek help for at least ten years.
You may have a panic disorder if you have several, unexpected panic attacks and the fear of suffering another attack. Sometimes panic disorder accompanies agoraphobia. Panic disorder is different than generalized anxiety disorder and it has nothing to do with the normal amount of panicking most people do when they are faced with a stressful decision or event.
Panic disorder can cause you to experience a sense of doom that leads to physical and emotional symptoms. These symptoms can be so intense as to require hospitalization. The emotional symptoms of a panic attack — such as a feeling of doom and a sense of helplessness — usually peak 10 minutes into a panic attack.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
About 1 percent of the U.S. population has obsessive-compulsive disorder. This disorder often presents with fears and behaviors that may seem confusing and irrational to the person as well as others. Obsessions are thought-based, or a preoccupation with specific thoughts like fears that can’t be ignored. Compulsions are behavior-based, or a need to perform an activity or action in a specific way.
Someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder may be fearful and anxious if they do not follow a compulsion to flip a light switch on and off before leaving, for example, or obsessively worry about the house burning down. The obsessions and compulsions are often linked.
Anxiety in Children
Just as with adults, anxiety is common among children and teenagers. It’s believed that anxiety disorders affect 1 in 8 children. The Child Mind Institute Children’s Mental Health Report estimated that 80 percent of kids with an anxiety disorder are not being treated, however. Children with an anxiety disorder may seem shy, nervous, or fearful and begin avoiding certain activities. Unlike a child who has a nightmare or a temporary fear after watching a scary movie, children with an anxiety disorder cannot be soothed and need help to get past their anxiety.
There are a few types of anxiety disorders most common in children:
- Separation anxiety disorder. This disorder affects 4 percent of children — usually between 7 and 9 — who have trouble being left by a parent or family member without extreme anxiety and homesickness.
- Social anxiety disorder or an intense fear of social situations. GET HELP HERE
- Selective mutism occurs when children refuse to speak to a degree that it interferes with making friends and participating at school. Children with this type of anxiety disorder may stand still with no expression, avoid eye contact, or withdraw in social situations but otherwise display normal behavior at home or where they are comfortable.
- Generalized anxiety disorder. Children with GAD worry constantly about many things such as sports, family issues, relationships with peers, and grades.
Anxiety disorders are very treatable and there are many treatment options. After being diagnosed by a health care professional, you can try:
•Complementary and alternative treatment
Some people respond to a specific treatment after a few weeks or months, but some people need a year or longer. Treatment for anxiety can be complicated if you have more than one type of anxiety disorder or you have a co-existing condition like depression.
Therapy is the most common treatment for anxiety, and it comes in many forms. Possible forms of therapy that may help include:
- Exposure therapy aims to reduce your anxiety responses by gradually exposing you to a feared situation to become less sensitive. This type of therapy is most effective for phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a very effective treatment that focuses on identifying and changing your behavior and thinking patterns. Most people begin to see results after three or four months. During therapy, you will develop a sense of control by taking an active role in your recovery.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Eye movements can reduce the intensity of harmful or disturbing thoughts in some situations. This treatment affects the way the brain processes information. It has been found to be effective in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, and panic disorder.
Medication can be used to treat anxiety with or without therapy. Medication can be used as a short-term or long-term treatment, depending on your situation and symptoms. There are four classes of medications that can treat anxiety disorders:
- Benzodiazepines such as lorazepam, diazepam, clonazepam, and alprazolam. These drugs are usually used for short-term treatment and they work by reducing physical symptoms and promoting relaxation.
- Tricyclic antidepressants like imipramine, nortriptyline, and amitriptyline. These antidepressants can be very effective in treating anxiety, but they can also cause significant side effects.
- Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs) like duloxetine and venlafaxine. These drugs increase the levels of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain by inhibiting their reabsorption. They are especially helpful in treating generalized anxiety disorder.
- Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) like citalopram, paroxetine, sertraline, and fluoxetine. These drugs have fewer side effects than tricyclic antidepressants but they can be effective in the treatment of all types of anxiety disorders.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)
Treatment options outside of conventional medicine can also be effective, whether they are used along with conventional medication or on their own. The most common CAM treatments used for anxiety include:
Meditation is the most widely-studied form of CAM and its benefits in the treatment of anxiety have been documented. Meditation doesn’t provide instant results, and it does take daily commitment. Still, meditation can help quiet the brain and help break you out of a stressful thought process.
Anxiety and Your Health
Chronic anxiety can have serious consequences for your health. Anxiety triggers the “flight or fight” response by releasing stress hormones and chemicals into the blood. These hormones increase your breathing rate and pulse to boost oxygen to the brain. When anxiety or stress is chronic or lasts too long, the body never returns to normal functioning from this state. This can weaken the immune system, digestive system, cardiovascular system, reproductive system, and more.
Research has found many risks of long-term, untreated stress and anxiety:
- Worsening skin conditions like acne and psoriasis
- Contributes to hair loss
- Worsens asthma attacks
- Increases the risk of stroke and heart disease
- Reproductive problems for men and women such as erectile dysfunction and menstrual disorders
- Muscle aches and spasms from muscle tension
- Stubborn fat gain from elevated cortisol (stress hormone) levels
- Higher risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol
- Gastrointestinal problems. Stress hormones can slow the release of stomach acid and the emptying of the stomach and lead to diarrhea, inflammation of the colon lining, and increasing the risk of IBS
- Weakened immune system can make you more likely to get infections, colds and flus while increasing the risk of autoimmune disorders and autoimmune disease flare-ups
It’s important to do something about chronic anxiety to protect not only your health but improve your quality of life. If you suspect you have an anxiety disorder, get a diagnosis so you can explore treatment options.