What is an anxiety disorder?
Anxiety disorder is a normal emotion. It is the brain’s way of reacting to stress and warning you of potential dangers ahead.
Everyone can feel anxious at times in life. For example, we may become anxious when facing a problem at work, before taking a test, or before making an important decision.
Excessive anxiety can lead to avoidance of social situations that trigger or exacerbate symptoms, like work, school, and family gatherings.
With treatment, many people with anxiety disorders can control their feelings.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
There are several types of anxiety disorders.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder Feeling excessive and unrealistic worry and nervousness for little or no reason.
Panic disorder Sudden, intense feelings of fear that lead to panic attacks. Panic attacks cause sweating, chest pain, and a pounding heart (palpitations). The patient may experience breathlessness and a heart attack-like sensation.
Social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, is a feeling of overwhelming worry and self-consciousness about everyday social situations. They are obsessively concerned about being criticized, embarrassed, or ridiculed by others.
Specific phobia A strong fear of a specific object or situation, such as heights or flying. The fear may go beyond the appropriate range and lead to avoidance of common situations.
Agoraphobia (agoraphobia). The person has a strong fear of being in a place where it would be difficult to escape or seek help in an emergency. For example, they may feel panicked or anxious on airplanes, on public transportation, or standing in line in a crowd.
Separation anxiety. Young children are not the only ones who become frightened or anxious when their loved ones disappear. Anyone can develop a separation anxiety disorder. When this happens, you become very anxious and fearful when someone close to you is no longer in your presence. You are always worried that something bad will happen to your loved one.
Selective lisping. A type of social anxiety in which a young person who normally speaks with family members stops speaking in public, such as at school.
Drug Dependent Anxiety Disorder, The use of certain drugs or illegal drugs or withdrawal from certain drugs can trigger some symptoms of anxiety disorders.
Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders
The main symptoms of anxiety disorders are excessive fear and worry. An anxiety disorder can also make it difficult to breathe, sleep, sit still, or concentrate. The specific symptoms depend on the type of anxiety disorder you have.
- Common symptoms include
- Panic, fear, or anxiety
- Panic, sense of doom or danger
- Sleep problems
- Inability to remain calm and still
- Cold, sweaty, numb, or tingling hands or feet
- Shortness of breath
- Breathing faster and more rapidly than normal (hyperventilation)
- Palpitations of the heart (heart palpitations)
- Dry mouth
- Muscle tension
- Thinking about the problem over and over again and not being able to stop (ruminating)
- Inability to concentrate
- Intense or compulsive avoidance of objects or places that frighten you
Causes and Risk Factors for Anxiety Disorders
Researchers do not know exactly what causes anxiety disorders. It is a complex combination of many things, and some people get it, and others don’t.
Causes of Anxiety Disorders
Causes of anxiety disorders include the following
Genetic. Anxiety disorders can run in families.
Brain chemicals. Some studies suggest that anxiety disorders may be caused by defects in the brain’s circuits that control fear and emotions.
Environmental Stress This refers to stressful events that you have seen or experienced. Life events often associated with anxiety disorders include childhood abuse or neglect, death of a loved one, being attacked or violated, etc.
Drug withdrawal or misuse. Some drugs can be used to mask or alleviate certain anxiety symptoms. Anxiety disorders are often closely associated with alcohol and drug abuse.
Medical Conditions Some heart, lung, and thyroid conditions can cause or exacerbate anxiety symptoms similar to anxiety disorders. When consulting a physician about anxiety, it is important to have a complete physical examination to rule out other medical conditions.
Risk Factors for Anxiety Disorders
Some things can make you more susceptible to developing an anxiety disorder. These are called risk factors. Some risk factors cannot be changed, but some can.
Risk factors for anxiety disorders include
History of mental illness. Having other mental conditions, such as depression, increases the risk of anxiety disorders.
Childhood sexual abuse Emotional, physical, or sexual abuse or neglect in childhood is associated with anxiety disorders later in life.
Trauma Experiencing a traumatic event increases the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and can lead to panic attacks.
Negative life events Stress or adverse life events, such as losing a parent in childhood, increase the risk of anxiety disorders.
Serious or chronic health conditions. Constantly worrying about your or a loved one’s health or caring for someone who is ill can make you feel depressed or anxious.
Substance abuse. Using alcohol or illegal drugs increases the likelihood of developing an anxiety disorder. Some people also use these substances to mask or relieve anxiety symptoms.
I am being shy as a child. Childhood shyness and withdrawal from unfamiliar places are associated with social anxiety in adolescence and adulthood.
Low self-esteem. Negative perceptions of oneself can lead to social anxiety disorder.
Diagnosis of Anxiety Disorders
If you have symptoms, your doctor will examine you and ask about your medical history. They may also perform tests to rule out other health conditions causing your symptoms. There are no laboratory tests that can specifically diagnose anxiety disorders.
If the physician cannot find a physical reason, you may be sent to a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health professional. These physicians will ask you questions and use tools and tests to determine if you may have an anxiety disorder.
The doctor will consider how long the symptoms have been present and how strong they are when making a diagnosis. Your doctor or counselor needs to know if your anxiety makes it difficult for you to enjoy or complete daily tasks at home, work, or school.
The U.S. Preventive Health Services Task Force recommends screening for anxiety in children and adolescents ages 8 to 18 and major depressive disorder (MDD) in adolescents ages 12 to 18.
Treatment of Anxiety Disorders
Many treatments are available to reduce and manage the symptoms of anxiety disorders. Usually, people with anxiety disorders take medications and receive counseling.
Treatment of anxiety disorders may include the following.
Medications Several types of medications are used to treat anxiety disorders. Consult with your doctor or psychiatrist about the pros and cons of each medication and decide which one is best for you.
Antidepressants The newer antidepressants (SSRIs and SNRIs) are usually the first drugs prescribed to people with anxiety disorders. Examples of SSRIs include escitalopram (Lexapro) and fluoxetine (Prozac); SNRIs include duloxetine (Cymbalta) and venlafaxine (Effexor).
Bupropion This is another type of antidepressant commonly used to treat chronic anxiety; it differs in action from SSRIs and SNRIs.
Other antidepressants include tricyclics and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). They are less commonly used because side effects such as low blood pressure, dry mouth, blurred vision, and urinary retention can be unpleasant or unsafe for some people.
Benzodiazepines If feelings of panic or anxiety persist, your doctor may prescribe one of these medications. They reduce anxiety. Examples include alprazolam (Xanax) and clonazepam (Klonopin). They are fast-acting but can be addictive. They are usually used as an adjunct to the treatment of anxiety disorders and should not be taken for very long.
Beta-blockers This type of hypertension medication helps to improve mood when there are physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a racing heart, tremors, or shaking. Beta-blockers help you relax during acute anxiety attacks.
Anticonvulsants These medications are used to prevent epileptic seizures and relieve specific symptoms of anxiety disorders.
Antipsychotics Adding these medications in low doses can make other treatments more effective.
Buspirone (Buspar). This anti-anxiety medication may be used to treat chronic anxiety. It may be necessary to take it for several weeks before seeing complete relief of symptoms.
Psychotherapy: A type of counseling that helps you learn how your emotions affect your behavior. Sometimes called talk therapy. A trained mental health professional will listen and talk with you about your thoughts and feelings and suggest ways to understand and manage them and anxiety disorders.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): In this general psychotherapy, you will learn how to change negative thoughts and behaviors that cause panic into positive ones. You will learn to approach and carefully handle situations that cause fear and worry without anxiety. Some offer CBT sessions for families.
Managing Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders
These tips can help you manage and alleviate symptoms.
Learn more about your disorder. The more you know, the better prepared you will be to deal with your symptoms and disorder. Don’t hesitate to ask your doctor any questions you may have. Remember, you are an important part of the medical team.
Stick to your treatment plan. Stopping medications abruptly may cause unpleasant side effects or trigger anxiety symptoms.
Avoid foods and drinks that contain caffeine, such as coffee, tea, colas, energy drinks, and chocolate. Caffeine is a mood-altering drug and can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety disorders.
Do not consume alcohol and recreational street drugs. Substance abuse increases the risk of anxiety disorders.
Eat well and exercise often. Risky aerobic exercise, such as jogging or cycling, helps release brain chemicals that reduce stress and improve mood.
Sleep well. Sleep disturbances and anxiety disorders are often closely related. Make good rest a priority. Develop a relaxing bedtime routine. If you still have trouble sleeping, consult your doctor.
Learn to relax. Stress management is an important part of the treatment plan for anxiety disorders. Things like meditation (mindfulness) can help you unwind from a stressful day and make treatment more effective.
Keep a journal. Writing down your thoughts before the day is over can help you relax and not toss and turn with anxious thoughts throughout the night.
Manage negative thoughts. Positive thoughts, rather than worrisome thoughts, can help reduce anxiety. However, this can be difficult if you have certain types of anxiety. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you learn how to redirect your thoughts.
Get together with a friend. Whether in person, on the phone, or the computer, social connections can help people grow and stay healthy. People who have close and chatty friends have lower levels of social anxiety.
Seek support. Some people find it helpful and uplifting to talk with others who have experienced the same symptoms and emotions. Self-help groups and support groups allow people to share their concerns and achievements with others who are in the same situation or have been through the same thing.
Consult your doctor or pharmacist before taking over-the-counter or herbal medicines. Many have chemicals that can exacerbate anxiety symptoms.
Perspectives on Anxiety Disorders
Dealing with an anxiety disorder can be difficult and frustrating. Constant worry and fear can make you tired and scared. If you have talked to your doctor about your symptoms, you have taken the first step toward not worrying.
It may take time to find the right treatment for you. If you have more than one anxiety disorder, you may need more than one type of treatment. Most people with anxiety disorders are best treated with medication and counseling. You can learn to manage and thrive with your symptoms with proper care and treatment.