Experiencing anxiety from time to time is a normal part of life. Sometimes, we feel anxious when starting a new job, meeting new people at a party, or just before we need to make an important life decision. Anxiety disorders are a bit more complicated than the everyday anxiety-producing events though. They involve more than occasionally feeling uncomfortable because they are persistent. For individuals living with an anxiety disorder, the symptoms can progressively get worse over time and they can seriously interfere with routine activities such as performance on the job, personal relationships, or simply walking into a store to make a purchase.
Anxiety disorders by definition, are psychiatric disorders characterized by acute worry and fear. Serious medical conditions, these disorders are just as pervasive and debilitating as cardiovascular disease, lupus, or any other major illness.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) lists anxiety disorders as the most common mental health concern in the United States. Roughly 40 million adults in the U.S. (18%) have an anxiety disorder, while 8% of children and teenagers will experience an anxiety disorder. Notably, most people will develop symptoms before age 21.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is an anxiety disorder typically characterized by chronic anxiety and exaggerated worry and tension, without an identifiable reason for the feelings.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent, intruding thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions). Repetitive behaviors like washing hands, repetitive checking, counting, or cleaning are often performed under the notion that these behaviors will stop obsessive thoughts or make them go away. While temporary relief may be felt, not performing them greatly increases anxiety levels.
- Panic Disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear coinciding with physical symptoms that might include heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pains, or abdominal distress.
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can develop after being exposed to or a victim of a traumatic event or ordeal where severe physical harm occurred or was threatened. Events that may trigger PTSD can include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.
- Social Phobia or Social Anxiety Disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by overwhelming anxiety and extreme self-consciousness in daily social situations. Social phobias may only occur in one particular type of situation, such as public speaking, or the phobia may present itself in a more severe manner and impact an individual’s experiences any and every time they are in the presence of other people.
A proper diagnosis of an anxiety disorder must be completed by a licensed mental health practitioner or physician. A complete physical examination is needed to exclude any medical illness you may be experiencing, as certain medical conditions may contribute to your symptoms or mask them. Additionally, a complete personal history is also necessary to receive a proper diagnosis. Generally speaking, in order for a person to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, the fear or anxiety must:
- Be disproportionate to the given situation or age inappropriate
- Prohibit carrying out normal day-to-day activities
Not to be confused with the fight-or-flight response that kicks in when there is real and imminent danger staring you in the face, anxiety disorders mimic these emotions on a routine or daily basis, and can manifest both emotionally and physically.
Emotional symptoms may include, but are not limited to:
- Irritability or anger
- Feeling apprehensive or a sense of impending doom
- Feeling tense
- Restlessness or fidgeting
Physical symptoms may include:
- Pounding heart and shortness of breath
- Profuse sweating, tremors and twitches
- Frequent headaches, fatigue and/or insomnia
- Stomachaches, frequent urination or diarrhea
The exact causes of anxiety disorders are not definitive but may result from a combination of factors including environmental, psychological, developmental and genetic. Anxiety disorders may affect multiple people in the same family, suggesting that environmental stressors and genetics might contribute to the disorders.
If diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, seeking help from a qualified mental health practitioner is strongly recommended. While the mere thought of attending therapy can be anxiety inducing, the benefits associated with following a prescribed treatment plan far outweigh any negative thoughts or feelings your disorder may try to convince you of. There is help in the form of various treatments which may include medication and/or therapy. Alternatively, getting support from online (or traditional) support groups, meditating, engaging in a creative activity, journaling, or participating in a regular exercise regimen may help in alleviating some of the symptoms of anxiety disorders.
The state of your physical and emotional health is vital in living a balanced and fulfilling life. If you are experiencing severe difficulty navigating everyday activities, please seek appropriate help. You are not alone and relief is available.
Mental Health Organizations
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (samhsa.gov) Phone: 1 (800) 662-HELP
SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org) Phone: 1 (800) 950-6264 CALL THE NAMI HELPLINE OR, In a Crisis? Text NAMI to 741741
National Institute of Mental Health (nimh.nih.gov) Available in English or Spanish Phone: 1 (866) 615-6464 TTY: 1 (301) 443-8431 TTY (toll-free) 1 (866) 415-8051
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (dbsalliance.org) Phone: 1 (800) 826-3632
American Psychological Association (apa.org) Phone: 1 (800) 374-2721 US Only Phone: 1 (202) 336-5500 From Anywhere TDD/TTY: 1 (202) 336-6123
If you or a loved one are in crisis, please contact
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1 (800) 273-8255
Photo Credit (Featured Image): Mwangi Gatheca – Unsplash