Anxiety is an unpleasant and sometimes debilitating emotion that we experience when we are faced with some form of problem, challenge, or possible disaster.
Occasional anxiety is a normal part of life.
But when anxiety becomes constant and interferes with daily functioning, it may indicate the presence of an anxiety disorder.
What is an Anxiety Disorder?
An anxiety disorder is a serious mental illness. It is a chronic and exaggerated feeling of worry or tension. People who suffer with anxiety disorders often worry constantly about their health, money, family, or career. Sometimes they simply experience feelings of nervousness, restlessness, and stress without knowing what is provoking these feelings. They may feel as if they are “keyed-up” or “on-edge” most of the time. Often they are unable to relax and enjoy pleasurable experiences because of their persistent worry. Even when they realize that they have no real reason to worry or that their level of worry is out of proportion to the situation, they are unable to relieve themselves of their fears.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
There are several types of anxiety disorders, including:
Common Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders
Symptoms vary depending on the type of anxiety disorder, but general symptoms and signs include:
- Problems sleeping
- Specific obsessions over stressful topics
- Difficulty thinking about anything besides a stressful topic
- Feeling tense, restless, jittery, or dizzy
- Having trouble concentrating
- Fluctuations in appetite
- Being overly cautious
- Being startled easily
- Having an omnipresent feeling of impending danger or disaster
- Heart palpitations
- Muscle tension
- Cold or sweaty hands and/or feet
What Causes Anxiety Disorders?
Anxiety disorders are caused by a number of factors, including:
Everyone learns to how to cope with emotional stress through observing family, friends, teachers, and peers, and growing up surrounded by people who constantly respond to stressful situations with anxiety, nervousness, and intense frustration can influence how they themselves will respond to such situations.
Certain personality traits appear to have an influence on the development of anxiety disorders. Some common personality traits shared by those who suffer with anxiety include low self-esteem, a lack of confidence, and inadequate coping skills.
Abuse, Trauma, and Negative Experiences
Anxiety can be triggered through the experience of a serious traumatic event. Abusive relationships, violent occurrences, and emotionally stressful situations such as poverty or an unstable home life can have a negative effect that triggers anxiety as well.
Mental and Emotional States
Anxiety disorders can co-exist with other mental and emotional issues such as substance abuse, depression, and eating disorders. It is possible that suffering with one of these problems may contribute to feelings of anxiety.
Prescription medications often have an influence over the appearance of anxiety symptoms. These medications change the chemical balance in the brain, so their influence suggests that a chemical imbalance may be partly responsible for anxiety disorders.
Anxiety disorders are often an issue for several members of the same family. This could be because of a hereditary predisposition towards an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety Disorder Risk Factors
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.
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.
Females 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. 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.
The Age Connection
Anxiety is common in the elderly. For many of them, their anxiety symptoms have been present since early adulthood, but they 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.
How is Anxiety Disorder Diagnosed?
Anxiety disorders are treatable, so if you think you or someone you care about has one, talk to a doctor.
Because anxiety disorders have several different main causes, diagnosis requires several steps. If you feel that you’re suffering with an anxiety disorder, it’s important to seek the help of a medical professional. They can diagnose your anxiety and work with you to develop a treatment plan.
Your healthcare practitioner will likely ask some specific questions, conduct a physical exam, and ask about you and your family’s medical history.
Anxiety disorders can be exacerbated by certain medical conditions and medications, so, if you have a physical health condition, it’s important that you let your doctor know.
Here are some questions your healthcare provider might ask:
- Is your worry constant?
- Do you worry about everything, including minor problems and occurrences?
- Do you experience physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, shaking, sweating, and nausea in social situations?
- When you think about your past, are there certain memories that cause you to feel more anxious?
Because there are different types of anxiety disorders and they often have overlapping symptoms or occur together, it can be difficult for doctors to diagnose your disorder. You may be referred to a psychiatrist or other mental health professional for further evaluation and guidance.
Anxiety Disorder Treatment Options
There are several different treatment options for those suffering with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Social Anxiety Disorder.
Traditionally, psychotherapy and prescription medications have been most commonly used. Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) has grown in popularity in recent years as people look to natural alternatives for managing health issues. The important thing is to remember that what works for one person may not be right for another. If the first treatment option doesn’t suit your needs, continue their search for the right fit.
Psychotherapy, or “talk” therapy, means talking with a trained mental health professional to learn coping skills for dealing with anxiety. There are different types of mental health professionals including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and licensed counselors, and there are different types of psychotherapy as well. Again, it is all about finding the right fit for the individual.
Research has shown that the most effective form of psychotherapy for anxiety disorders is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). There are two components to CBT. The cognitive component teaches the patient how to change their thought patterns to overcome their fears. The behavioral component attempts to change the patient’s reactions to anxiety-provoking situations.
One of the behavioral techniques most commonly used with anxiety patients is called exposure and response prevention. If the sufferer has a specific fear, the therapist encourages them to face their fear and put themselves in a situation where they will have to engage with their fear. By doing this repeatedly, the patient will come to realize that their worst fears are unfounded, thus, with practice, completely extinguishing the fear.
Psychiatrists and general practitioners can prescribe medications for anxiety disorders. Generally, a person seeking medication will be simultaneously involved in some form of psychotherapy. Medications are not a cure, but they can help control some of the symptoms associated with anxiety and make it easier to deal with.
Many of the medications used in the treatment of depression can also help those with anxiety. The oldest class of anti-depressants, known as tricyclics, were developed in the 1950s and can be useful for people with anxiety. Two that are often used in cases of anxiety are Clomipramine and Imipramine.
Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), were discovered shortly after tricyclics. They aren’t very widely used because they can cause dangerous spikes in blood pressure, and these medications are seen as a last resort for those who do not respond to tricyclics or SSRIs. Phenelzine, Tranylcypromine, and Isoprocarboxazid are MAOIs that are also indicated for use in cases of Anxiety.
The most recent class of anti-depressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), help to stabilize levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Some of the SSRIs commonly used to relieve anxiety are Fluvoxetine, Fluvoxamine, Sertraline, Paroxetine, and Citalopram.
Benzodiazepines relieve the symptoms of anxiety quickly and with few side effects. People can develop a tolerance to these medications, and they are generally only prescribed for a short period of time because long-term use can lead to dependence. They are not generally suggested for people who have had a history of drug or alcohol abuse issues because these drugs can be highly addictive. Clonazepam, Alprazolam, and Lorazepam are some of the benzodiazepines used to relieve anxiety.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Complementary and Alternative Medicine is defined as a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine. Many CAM therapies are supported by scientific research, but, in all cases, there are key questions yet to be answered.
CAM modalities are based on aiding the individual to find balance so that an emotional or physical disorder doesn’t become a chronic issue and, when they do, they can find healing through a more natural, holistic approach.
The following complementary and alternative practices are currently used to treat anxiety (click on each to learn more):
- Art Therapy
- Breathing and relaxation exercises
- Chiropractic care
- Herbal medicine
- Light therapy
- Massage therapy
Remember, you are human and it is normal to experience some anxiety on occasion. But, if you find that you are experiencing anxiety on a regular basis, or you think it is possible you have an anxiety disorder, seeking the help of a professional is a good idea.