This article will help illustrate and explain anxiety in terms of symptoms, types of anxiety disorders, causes, diagnosis, and treatment according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in the United States. Over forty million adults in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder. Meanwhile, approximately 7% of children aged 3-17 experience issues with anxiety each year. Most people develop symptoms before age 21.
Anxiety disorders are a group of related conditions, each having unique symptoms. However, all anxiety disorders have one thing in common: persistent, excessive fear or worry in situations that are not threatening. People typically experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Feelings of apprehension or dread
- Feeling tense or jumpy
- Restlessness or irritability
- Anticipating the worst and being watchful for signs of danger
- Pounding or racing heart and shortness of breath
- Sweating, tremors, and twitches
- Headaches, fatigue, and insomnia
- Upset stomach, frequent urination, or diarrhea
Types Of Anxiety Disorders
There are many types of anxiety disorders, each with different symptoms. The most common types of anxiety disorders include:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD produces chronic, exaggerated worries about everyday life. This worrying can consume hours each day, making it hard to concentrate or finish daily tasks. A person with GAD may become exhausted by worry and experience headaches, tension, or nausea.
Social Anxiety Disorder
More than shyness, this disorder causes intense fear about social interaction, often driven by irrational worries about humiliation (e.g., saying something stupid or not knowing what to say). Someone with Social Anxiety Disorder may not take part in conversations, contribute to class discussions, or offer their ideas, and may become isolated. Panic attacks are a common reaction to anticipated or forced social interaction.
This disorder is characterized by panic attacks and sudden feelings of terror sometimes striking repeatedly and without warning. Often mistaken for a heart attack, a panic attack causes powerful physical symptoms including chest pain, heart palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath, and stomach upset. Many people will engage in desperate measures to avoid an attack, including social isolation.
We all tend to avoid certain things or situations that make us uncomfortable or even fearful. But for someone with a phobia, certain places, events, or objects create powerful reactions of strong, irrational fear. Most people with specific phobias have several things that can trigger those reactions; to avoid panic, they will work hard to avoid their triggers. Depending on the type and number of triggers, attempts to control fear can take over a person’s life.
Other anxiety disorders include:
- Selective mutism
- Separation anxiety disorder
- Substance/medication-induced anxiety disorder, involving intoxication or withdrawal or medication treatment
Scientists believe that many factors combine to cause anxiety disorders:
Genetics. Studies support the evidence that anxiety disorders “run in families,” as some families have a higher-than-average amount of anxiety disorders among relatives.
Environment. A stressful or traumatic event such as abuse, death of a loved one, violence, or prolonged illness is often linked to the development of an anxiety disorder.
Physical symptoms of an anxiety disorder can be easily confused with other medical conditions, like heart disease or hyperthyroidism. Therefore, a doctor will likely perform an evaluation involving a physical examination, an interview, and lab tests. After ruling out an underlying physical illness, a doctor may refer a person to a mental health professional for evaluation.
Using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) a mental health professional can identify the specific type of anxiety disorder causing symptoms as well as any other possible disorders that may be involved. Tackling all disorders through comprehensive treatment is the best recovery strategy.
Once it is clear there is no underlying physical condition present or medication side effect causing your anxiety, then exploring options for mental health treatment is essential.
The types of treatment proven to be most effective for many people experiencing an anxiety disorder involve a combination of psychotherapy and medication. Your preferences in a treatment plan are essential, however, so discuss the best approaches and options with your treatment team.
Co-occurring conditions, like depression, are common when a person has anxiety. Be sure to work with your treatment team to make sure these other conditions are not overlooked.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most researched therapy for anxiety disorders. In general, CBT focuses on finding the counterproductive thinking patterns that contribute to anxiety. CBT offers many constructive strategies to reduce the beliefs and behaviors that lead to anxiety.
CBT has the largest research base to support its effectiveness, though it can be difficult to figure out which therapists are trained in CBT. There is no single national certification program for this skill. Ask your therapist how they approach treating anxiety and their training in these approaches.
Exposure Response Prevention is psychotherapy for specific anxiety disorders like phobias and social anxiety. It aims to help a person develop a more constructive response to fear. The goal is for a person to expose themselves to that which they fear, in an attempt to experience less anxiety over time and develop effective coping tools.
Some people find that medication helps manage anxiety disorder. Talk with your health care provider about the potential benefits, risks, and side effects.
Anti-anxiety medications. Certain medications work solely to reduce the emotional and physical symptoms of anxiety. Benzodiazepines can be effective for short-term reduction of symptoms but can create the risk of dependence when used for a long time. Be sure to review these potential risks if you select these medicines.
Antidepressants. Many antidepressants may also be useful for treating anxiety. These can also be useful if your anxiety has a co-occurring depression.
Complementary Health Approaches
More and more people have started using complementary and alternative methods along with conventional treatment to help with their recovery. Some of the most common approaches for treating anxiety include:
Self-management strategies. Strategies such as allowing for specific periods for worrying. Someone who becomes an expert on their condition and its triggers gains more control over their day.
Stress and Relaxation Techniques. These often combine breathing exercises and focused attention to calm the mind and body. These techniques can be an important component in treating phobias or panic disorders.
Yoga. The combination of physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation found in yoga has helped many people improve the management of their anxiety disorder.
Exercise. Aerobic exercise can have a positive effect on your stress and anxiety. Check with your primary care doctor before beginning an exercise plan.
Anxiety disorders can impact even the smallest details of life. It’s important to get help and learn how to remain resilient during difficult times. Here are some ways you can help yourself move forward:
Become an expert. Learn about medication and treatment options. Keep up with current research. Build a personal library of useful websites and helpful books.
Know your triggers and stressors. If large groups make you nervous, go to a park and sit on an out-of-the-way bench. If taking a walk outdoors reduces your anxiety before a big meeting, schedule a ten-minute walk before the meeting starts. Being mindful of triggers and stressors will help you live your life with fewer limitations.
Partner with your health care providers. Actively participate in your treatment by working with mental health care professionals to develop a plan that works for you. Talk with them about your goals, decide on a recovery pace you’re comfortable with, and stick to your plan. Don’t quit when something doesn’t go well. Instead, talk to your doctor or therapist about possible changes.
Get healthy. Studies have reported that thirty minutes of vigorous, aerobic exercise can eliminate symptoms, while low-key activities like meditation, yoga, or Tai Chi relieve stress. Regular exercise can reduce many symptoms. Diet is also an important factor, so try to eat healthy, balanced meals and pay attention to food sensitivities. In some people, certain foods or additives can cause unpleasant physical reactions, which may lead to irritability or anxiety.
Avoid drugs and alcohol. These substances may seem to help with anxiety at first but can disrupt emotional balance, sleep cycles, and interact with medications. Coffee, energy drinks, and cigarettes worsen anxiety.
Helping A Family Member Or Friend
Learn about your loved one’s triggers, stressors, and symptoms. By being informed and aware, you may help prevent an increase in symptoms. Look for things like rapid breathing, fidgeting, or avoidance behaviors. Discuss your friend or family member’s past experiences with them so they can recognize the signs early as well.
Play a role in treatment. Increasingly, mental health professionals are recommending couple or family-based treatment programs. And on occasion, a therapist might enlist a loved one to help reinforce behavior modification techniques with homework. Ultimately, the work involved in recovery is the responsibility of the person with the disorder, but you can play an active, supportive role.
Communicate. Speak honestly and kindly. Make specific offers of help and follow through. Tell the person you care about her. Ask how she feels and don’t judge her for her anxious thoughts.
Allow time for recovery. Understanding and patience need to be balanced with pushing for progress and your expectations.
React calmly and rationally. Even if your loved one is in a crisis, it’s important to remain calm. Listen to him and make him feel understood, then take the next step in getting help.
Find out more about taking care of your family member or friend (without forgetting about yourself!).
Anxiety Disorders. (2017, January 12). National Alliance on Mental Health. https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Anxiety-Disorders/Support
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