What Makes An Anxiety Disorder
Feeling anxious or worried is the body’s normal response to stress. In some situations, anxiety can be beneficial as it alerts us to danger and helps us react accordingly to protect ourselves.
Anxiety disorders, however, differ from regular feelings of nervousness and result in excessive, uncontrollable feelings of fear and anxiety. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issue in America, with over 30 percent of adults experiencing some type of anxiety disorder in their lifetime.
Fortunately, most people with an anxiety disorder can lead normal, happy, and productive lives with the right treatment.
What Is Anxiety
Anxiety is the body’s response to fear and stress. While everyone reacts differently to stressful situations, many people will exhibit signs of anxiety at some point or another. Anxiety is a normal biological reaction, and signs include stress, nervousness, worrying, and fear until the threat, stressor, or situation has passed.
Anxiety can cause symptoms like:
- Excessive fear and worrying
- Panic and panic attacks
- Racing thoughts
- Rapid heart rate
- Stomachache and other stomach issues
- Muscle tension
- Shortness of breath
For a person to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, their anxiety needs to:
- Be unrelated to immediate stressors, and be out of proportion to the situation they are confronted with
- Be excessive and take up a lot of mental energy
- Hinder the individual’s ability to function properly
Types of Anxiety Disorders
There are several different types of anxiety disorders. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, some of the most common ones include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder or social phobia, panic disorder, phobias about specific things, agoraphobia, and separation anxiety disorder.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by excessive, persistent worry that hinders quality of life and interferes with daily activities and responsibilities.
Symptoms of GAD include:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Difficulty concentrating
- Muscle tension
- Sweaty palms
- Irritability and agitation
People with GAD worry uncontrollably about common everyday life and situations. This worry extends beyond reasonable life occurrences. Even if the individual is aware that there is no reason for them to be worrying, they will continue to do so.
It is not unusual for a person with GAD to be aware that they have no reason to worry but cannot stop. Sometimes, the individual will even be unable to say what they are feeling anxious about.
The main symptom of panic disorder is unexpected, recurring panic attacks that are debilitating. In most cases, panic attacks will occur without warning. The onset of panic disorder is usually between the ages of 20-24.
Although panic attacks are a symptom of panic disorder, panic attacks can also occur with other mental illnesses like depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Shaking and tremors
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, feeling faint
- Heart palpitations
- A feeling of impending doom
- Chills or hot flashes
Panic attacks generally last less than 20 minutes. Due to the severity of symptoms, many people experiencing a panic attack may believe they are having a heart attack. This leads them to visit a hospital or contact emergency medical services.
Social Anxiety Disorder or Social Phobia
Previously called social phobia, social anxiety disorder is a chronic, debilitating fear of being humiliated, rejected, criticized, or embarrassed in a public setting. Individuals suffering from social anxiety disorder may avoid public situations or being around other people entirely.
If they cannot avoid attending a public event or engaging with people, they will do so with great anxiety, and may even experience panic attacks.
A phobia is an excessive, persistent fear of something. Even if the person is aware that their fear is unreasonable, they cannot help themselves. The symptoms of a phobia can be so extreme that the individual will go to great lengths to avoid their fear.
Some common phobias include:
- Aerophobia: fear of flying
- Claustrophobia: fear of enclosed, tight spaces
- Acrophobia: fear of heights
- Hemophobia: fear of blood
- Trypanophobia: fear of needles
- Hydrophobia: fear of water
If an individual has a phobia, they may experience a panic attack if they are faced with the object or situation of their fear.
Agoraphobia is the most common type of phobia and is usually the result of experiencing panic attacks. Individuals with agoraphobia will fear being in situations where they may not be able to escape, or they won’t be able to get help if they have a panic attack.
A person with agoraphobia will usually experience disproportionate anxiety about the following situations:
- Using public transport
- Being in enclosed spaces
- Being in open spaces
- Standing in line
- Being in a crowd
- Being outside their home
If left untreated, agoraphobia can become so severe that the individual may be unable to leave their house at all. A person will only be diagnosed with agoraphobia if their fear interferes with regular daily activities and prevents them from living a normal life.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
A person with separation anxiety is extremely and persistently anxious about losing the person or people they are closest to. They will worry excessively about being separated from the person or people to whom they are attached. This feeling needs to persist for at least four weeks in children and six months in adults in order to qualify for a diagnosis.
Although more commonly seen in very young children, adults can have separation anxiety disorder too.
Risk Factors for Anxiety Disorders
There is no detailed or specific evidence on what causes anxiety disorders. The cause of most anxiety disorders likely involves a combination of factors, including genetics, environmental influences, substance abuse, traumatic experiences, developmental issues, and chemical imbalances in the brain.
Often, anxiety disorders are hereditary, which suggests that a combination of genes and environmental and lifestyle stresses can trigger a disorder in an individual.
Anxiety Disorder Treatment
Too often, people fail to seek help for their anxiety disorder. This can lead to co-occurring substance abuse due to the individual trying to self-medicate. In order to lead a happy, productive life and manage the symptoms of anxiety, professional help is needed.
Due to how common anxiety disorders are, there is a wide range of treatment options available, even though there is no cure.
Common treatment for anxiety disorders include:
- Psychotherapy: This is a form of talk therapy used to treat mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. Psychotherapy typically involves the counselor, therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist working with the patient in order to identify unhealthy thought patterns and develop healthy coping mechanisms. There are many forms of psychotherapy but the types most commonly used in the treatment of anxiety disorders are cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, mindfulness-based therapy, interpersonal therapy, and psychodynamic therapy.
- Medications: The most common types of medications used to treat anxiety disorders are antidepressants and anti-anxieties.
- Antidepressants used in the treatment of anxiety include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as sertraline (Zoloft), escitalopram (Lexapro), and fluoxetine (Prozac).
- Anti-anxiety type medications used include benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Valium, and Ativan. Beta-blockers such as propranolol are also effective, as well as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs).
It is vital that someone with an anxiety disorder never tries to treat themselves with prescription tranquilizers. This increases the risk of developing an addiction. Medication for an anxiety disorder should only ever be taken exactly as prescribed and directed.
Positive lifestyle changes can also help with managing anxiety. These are usually most effective when combined with medical treatment in the form of therapy and medications.
Some lifestyle changes that can help with managing anxiety symptoms include:
- Breathing exercises
- Regular exercise or physical activity
- Good sleep habits
- Minimizing or eliminating caffeine and alcohol
Get Help for Anxiety Disorder
Despite there being no cure for anxiety disorders, with the right help, it is possible to overcome symptoms and live a happy life.
It is imperative that individuals suffering from an anxiety disorder do not turn to alcohol or drugs to soothe their symptoms. This is known as self-medicating and can easily result in addiction.
If you or a loved one are suffering from anxiety or are simply struggling to cope, seek professional help with a registered mental health clinic or helpline.
Some useful helplines to contact:
- Panic Disorder Information Hotline: 1-800-64-PANIC (72642)
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
If you are concerned about substance use co-occurring with a mental illness such as anxiety, get in touch with us today. Our treatment navigators specialize in finding the right treatment facility for mental illness co-occurring with substance abuse. We can help you get your life back on track.