Anxiety is a term that tends to get tossed around a lot to reflect whenever someone is feeling stressed. Occasionally feeling worried or anxious is normal, but it becomes an anxiety disorder when the worry and fear is persistent, intense, and revolves around normal everyday occurrences - sometimes resulting in the person not partaking in these situations out of fear.
An anxiety disorder will interfere with regular life activities and can’t be controlled easily. The thoughts associated with the anxiety will be out of proportion to the amount of danger or stress actually presented in the given situation.
There are many anxiety disorders, and some people could have multiple disorders. These disorders are real medical conditions and are actually among the most common mental disorders in the US. It is estimated that 44 million US adults live with anxiety disorders - only one-third of them actually receive treatment.
Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders
Fear and stress, like butterflies in your stomach or a stomach ache, are normal emotions that affect pretty much everyone and some time or another. But feeling stressed about a job interview is different than coping with an anxiety disorder. Someone with an anxiety disorder may struggle to leave their home out of fear of crowds.
People suffering from one or more anxiety disorders may feel:
- A sense of impending doom
- Weak or tired
- Constantly and excessively worried
- Tempted to avoid anything that triggers the anxiety
Anxiety disorders also cause physiological symptoms including:
- Problems with sleeping
- GI issues
Types of Anxiety Disorders
There are several types of anxiety disorders, some of which are:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) affects almost 7 million Americans each year, and women are twice as likely to experience it. This disorder is characterized by excessive worry about many different things - money, family, friends, health, etc. The worry comes even when there is no actual reason to be concerned. When anxiety is not too severe, sufferers of GAD can lead relatively normal and productive lives. When the anxiety becomes severe, they may not even be able to complete the most simple of everyday activities.
- Agoraphobia is a disorder that prevents people from going to certain places or partaking in situations since they could cause panic or feeling trapped. Places like malls, movie theaters, or parking lots typically spike a fear of not being able to easily escape, so people with agoraphobia would avoid those places.
- Panic disorder is characterized by experiencing panic attacks, which are intense moments of anxiety, fear, and/or terror. Panic attacks may be accompanied by a feeling of impending doom, chest pain or heart palpitations, and shortness of breath. Panic attacks are unexpected, and usually the sufferer fears having another one.
- Separation anxiety disorder affects children, and consists of anxiety over being separated from parents or guardians that is too excessive for the child’s developmental stage.
- Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, is anxiety over being judged, embarrassed, or rejected in a social situation. Many people who suffer from this disorder understand that their worry is excessive, but they are unable to control it and will sometimes experience panic attacks when needing to engage in a feared social situation.
- Anxiety disorder resulting from a medical condition has symptoms of anxiety or panic but are side effects of a different condition. The medical condition could include diabetes, heart disease, thyroid problems, chronic pain, rare tumors, or respiratory disorders.
These are just some of the anxiety disorders that are diagnosable, but there are also anxiety disorders that don’t align with any of these specific disorders that are generally called unspecified anxiety disorder.
Who can get anxiety disorders?
There are certain risk factors for developing an anxiety disorder. Some research has shown a genetic component to developing an anxiety disorder, specifically in the genes responsible for stress hormone regulation. If several people in a family have anxiety disorders, it’s more likely there is a genetic prevalence for anxiety in that family.
Environmental factors also play a role. Parenting behavior can create a risk for anxiety disorder development - parents who are controlling, exhibit anxious behaviors in front of their children, or reject their children. Stressful life events in childhood could lead to an anxiety disorder later in life. Anyone who experiences a traumatic event, or highly stressful experience such as developing a serious illness, could develop an anxiety disorder at any point in life.
Certain personality types are more likely to develop anxiety disorders, such as a more introverted person experiencing social anxiety disorder. Women develop anxiety disorders more frequently than men, and they experience more severe symptoms.
Life choices and behavior, such as drug use, tobacco use, drinking alcohol, and drinking caffeine can contribute to developing an anxiety disorder. Conversely, choosing to exercise regularly could help improve or not develop an anxiety disorder.
Diagnosis and Treatment
A person who suspects they have an anxiety disorder, or just know that anxiety is interrupting their life, can first visit their primary care doctor to find out if there’s a cause for the anxiety. From there, they may need to see a psychiatrist or therapist to work on diagnosing the specific disorder and starting treatment.
Treatment involves psychotherapy and/or medications, depending on the anxiety disorder. Psychotherapy involves counseling with a therapist to help lower anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered the most effective psychotherapy for anxiety disorders since it helps the anxiety sufferer learn specific ways to alleviate symptoms.
For medications, certain antidepressants can help reduce anxiety, along with specific anti-anxiety medication. Another option is short-term relief medications (such as sedatives) that can be prescribed by doctors.
Lifestyle changes, including avoiding alcohol and drugs, eating a healthy diet, getting lots of sleep, and exercising regularly may also help with lowering anxiety. Practicing meditation, visualization, and breathing techniques can help with coping with anxiety.
Sources and More Information
Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Understand the Facts” https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety
“Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)” https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad
Anxiety.org, “What is Anxiety?” by Tanja Jovanovic, Ph.D. Consulting Editor, Abigail Powers Lott, Ph.D., Vasiliki Michopoulos, Ph.D. , Jennifer Stevens, Ph.D., Sanne van Rooij, Ph.D., Sierra Carter, Ph.D., Jessica Maples Keller, Ph.D., Yvonne Ogbonmwan, Ph.D., Anaïs Stenson, Ph.D. https://www.anxiety.org/what-is-anxiety
Mayo Clinic, “Anxiety” https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anxiety/symptoms-causes/syc-20350961
Jenny Ewen, BA, EMT