Understanding Anxiety Disorders

Millions of individuals live each day in fear – not of an actual physical threat, but imaginary dangers, remembered trauma, inanimate objects, or something as simple as walking outside their front door.

The most common psychiatric illnesses today are anxiety disorders.  Estimates place the number of affected Americans at up to 40 million. At least 18% of adults and 13% of children suffer from some type of anxiety disorder in a given year.

The Nature of Anxiety Disorders

We all experience brief moments of anxiety during stress.  In order to be considered an actual disorder, anxiety symptoms must be intense and frequent.

Mental health professionals recognize six different types of anxiety disorders:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder – continual disturbing thoughts and/or the need to perform ritualistic behaviors;
  • Generalized anxiety disorder – excessive, unrealistic worry or tension without apparent cause;
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder – frightening thoughts and memories after a traumatic event, often with emotional numbing;
  • Social anxiety disorder – overwhelming self-consciousness or phobia about being in social situations;
  • Panic disorder – sudden feelings of terror, often with incapacitating physical symptoms;
  • Specific phobias – intense fears of specific situations or objects.

Excessive fears or feelings of dread are common to all types of anxiety disorders.

Common Symptoms

While clusters of symptoms vary with the type of anxiety disorder, individuals with severe anxiety may experience:

  • Persistent feelings of panic, fear, or dread;
  • Obsessive thoughts;
  • Ritualistic, compulsive behaviors;
  • Flashbacks to traumatic experiences;
  • Feelings of losing control;
  • Frequent nightmares;
    • Intense fears in public situation;
    • Intense fears of certain objects or activities;
    • Physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, heart palpitations, nausea, muscle tension, dizziness, or dry mouth.

Causes and Risk Factors

Many factors may influence the development of an anxiety disorder.  They include genetic tendencies as well as such environmental factors as repeated exposure to stressful events or one major traumatic event. Even certain medications, including antihistamines, oral contraceptives, and insulin, have been found to trigger anxiety.  As with most mental illnesses, anxiety disorders appear to develop from an interaction of many medical, genetic, psychological, and environmental factors.

Anxiety disorders can affect anyone and often occur in conjunction with other physical and mental illnesses. Women are diagnosed with anxiety disorders more frequently than men.  No differences in prevalence have been noted across races or cultures.

Anxiety Treatment

Treatment of anxiety can greatly reduce or eliminate symptoms in most individuals.  Primary treatments for most anxiety disorders include medication and psychotherapy.  Treatment can usually be provided on an outpatient basis, although brief residential or inpatient treatment is sometimes needed, depending upon the individual’s unique needs.

Medications used to treat anxiety disorders include a variety of antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the preferred type of psychotherapy for severe anxiety.  Through therapy, patients learn to recognize unhealthy thought patterns and behaviors associated with their anxiety and to change both faulty thinking patterns and their reactions to “trigger” situations.

In addition to medication and psychotherapy, treatment may include relaxation therapy, changes in diet and lifestyle, and education on the illness for both patients and their families.

While anxiety disorders cannot be prevented, people can often reduce symptoms by limiting caffeine consumption, avoiding over-stimulating medications or supplements, and seeking immediate support or counseling after a traumatic experience.

Through proper treatment and symptom management, millions of individuals affected by anxiety disorders can lead fulfilling lives again.

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