Anxiety is an emotion everyone feels at times; it is associated with worry, stress or panic. Some people may get anxious before taking a test, making an important decision or going to see a doctor. Feelings of anxiety in such contexts are typically temporary and brief. An anxiety disorder, however, presents with much more severe and persistent feelings of worry, fear and stress that are powerful enough to interfere with one’s daily activities and relationships. More than 3 million people are treated each year for a wide array of anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorder is the most common psychiatric illness among both children and adults.
What are the different types of anxiety disorders?
There are several types of anxiety disorders recognized by medical professionals, including:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): Characterized by overwhelming, chronic and excessive worry that occurs with little to no provocation. This disorder applies to everyday circumstances and situations.
- Panic Disorder: Occurs when an individual suffers sudden symptoms of fear, dread or terror with little to no warning. Patients with panic disorder can experience frequent panic attacks, presenting with a great variety of symptoms, including heart palpitations, sweating, digestive distress, a sensation of choking or having a heart attack, a feeling that one is dying..
- Social Anxiety Disorder: Involves feelings of self-consciousness, insecurity and worry in social situations. This disorder is also known as social phobia. Individuals may fear becoming embarrassed, judged or ridiculed in social situations so strongly that they avoid social situations all together.
- Specific phobias: Characterized by irrational fear to a specific object, animal or situation such as heights, spiders or closed spaces. Phobias can be crippling and cause individuals to avoid certain everyday situations.
What are the symptoms of an anxiety disorder?
Symptoms of an anxiety disorder may vary within the different types, but generally speaking the most common symptoms include:
- Irrational panic or fear
- Difficulty sleeping
- Shortness of breath, chest tightness
- Sweaty or numb palms and/or feet
- Heart palpitations
- Nausea or other digestive distress
- Muscle tension
- Dry mouth
- Feeling of impending death
What are the causes of an anxiety disorder?
The cause of various anxiety disorders is unknown, however it is believed that environmental stress and changes to the brain may be contributing factors. Trauma can become a trigger for anxiety in individuals who are more susceptible to developing a disorder. Prolonged stress can change the way nerve cells transmit information. Genetic factors may also play a role in increasing susceptibility to developing an anxiety disorder.
How is an anxiety disorder diagnosed?
Anxiety disorders present physical symptoms that can often be confused with other medical conditions. A physical exam performed by a physician must first rule out any indication of physical illness. A referral to a mental health professional will then be issued during which an interview using specific assessment tools is used to properly diagnose an anxiety disorder. The patient will be asked to describe the duration and severity of symptoms, as well as to note any triggers of his or her anxiety. Observations of the patient’s behavior and attitude will also be used to make a proper diagnosis.
How is an anxiety disorder treated?
Treatment often depends on the type of anxiety disorder diagnosed. The approach prescribed by a mental health professional may include one or a combination of the following treatment options:
- Medications — Administering antidepressants or anxiety-reducing medications
- Psychotherapy — “Talk-therapy” in which the therapist helps to make the patient aware of individual responses to anxiety, while helping the patient develop strategies for coping with the disorder.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy — The therapist trains the individual to recognize and change thoughts and behavior patterns that lead to feelings of anxiety
- Diet and lifestyle changes — Eating a healthier diet and getting more exercise may help alleviate anxiety
- Relaxation therapy — Any number of relaxation or meditative techniques may be helpful in relieving anxiety when it occurs and in making episodes ocur less frequently.
There is no cure for anxiety disorders, though many do abate over time. The treatment options made available can be successful in reducing symptoms and creating coping strategies. Many individuals will find improvement in their condition through dedication and a willingness to help themselves cope and change, as well as through use of prescribed medication and relaxation techniques.