Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life. Long-term life stress, serious illness, as well as poor diet and exercise habits can trigger feelings of anxiety. However, anxiety disorders including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and social anxiety disorder are caused by certain risk factors and only occur in certain cases.
What makes anxiety disorder different from the occasional bout of over-stress? Anxiety disorders could be defined as a hyper-sensitivity to stress that leads to long-term episodes of anxiety that don’t end when the stressor is gone.
So, if we all deal with stress in our lives, why do some people develop an anxiety disorder while others seem to handle stress more effectively? There are several risk factors which can make you more susceptible to anxiety disorder. If you’re experiencing the symptoms of an anxiety disorder, it’s important to speak with a healthcare provider whether or not you have any of these risk factors.
The Female Connection
Women are twice as likely as men to suffer from generalized anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. While researchers are still searching for the exact reasons, they’ve recognized some risk factors that increase the prevalence of anxiety disorders in women: abuse and hormones.
Girls and women are more likely to suffer emotional, mental, physical and sexual abuse, which can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. Research has also shown that abuse suffered in childhood can lead to long-term changes in the brain’s structure and chemistry, making a woman more likely to develop an anxiety disorder. A look at the brains of sexually abused women showed that they had abnormal blood flow in the hippocampus, which triggers memories and emotions. This means that they’re more sensitive to mood fluctuations including depressive episodes and anxiety attacks.
Hormonal differences in women also appear to be a factor. Preliminary research shows that estrogen, the female sex hormone, interacts with serotonin in such a way that might trigger mood fluctuations including anxiety disorder.
The Childhood Connection
Childhood experiences can trigger an anxiety disorder. Serious mental and physical abuse leaves an individual more susceptible to post-traumatic stress syndrome or can cause damage to the brain that increases the risk of generalized anxiety disorder. Less severe forms of emotional disturbance such as abandonment, teasing, or long-term separation from loved ones can create feelings of anxiety. If a child doesn’t develop healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with life stress, that life stress can turn into an anxiety disorder.
Simply being a child can influence the likelihood of an anxiety disorder. It is estimated that 13% of children suffer with an anxiety disorder. In fact, certain anxiety disorders usually begin in childhood. Obsessive-compulsive disorder usually starts between the ages of 6 and 15 in boys, and social anxiety generally has its first onset in childhood, often appearing as separation anxiety.
While children can suffer from anxiety disorders, the symptoms in children are often a little different. Adults with generalized anxiety disorder tend to worry about average everyday fears: finances, health, social commitments, and relationships. Children, on the other hand, tend to have much more active imaginations when it comes to their anxieties. They live in a big, scary world over which they have virtually no control, so they’re much more likely to experience fear and worry in situations where there is no danger present. For example, children with generalized anxiety disorder are more likely to worry about school performance even when they’re not being tested.
The appearance of anxiety symptoms in children can also be exacerbated by the fact that they don’t have the emotional maturity to recognize problems with their own thinking. An adult with obsessive-compulsive disorder can identify their thinking as abnormal, while a child is more likely to see it as “just the way it is.” If a child latches onto their irrational thinking, their anxiety disorder will grow without proper treatment.
The Age Connection
Anxiety is very common in the elderly. For many of them, their anxiety symptoms have been present since early adulthood; they simply never received treatment. The increased risk of major illness, death, death of close friends or family members, and medications associated with the older population are also factors that influence the prevalence of anxiety disorders in the elderly. It is estimated that 11% of people over age 55 are dealing with symptoms of anxiety.
If you or someone you love is experiencing an anxiety disorder, there is hope. Talk with a medical professional to find out the best course of treatment.