*Nothing in this article constitutes medical advice. Seek the guidance of a physician if you have any questions.*
Anxiety disorders can detract from an individual’s quality of life, job performance, relationship stability, and sleep quality. As of 2017, roughly 20 million Americans were living with some kind of anxiety disorder. Today, let’s take a deeper look into the causes, symptoms, and treatment options of this varied and intricate disorder.
What is Anxiety?
Almost everyone experiences anxiety to some degree. For the majority of people, this anxiety manifests itself as infrequent worry, doubt, or fear surrounding a specific event, situation, or person. For those individuals with a variety of anxiety disorders, this fear and worry can be persistent. According to the Mayo Clinic, “people with anxiety disorders frequently have intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. Often, anxiety disorders involve repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes.”
A defining trait of most anxiety disorders is that the anxiety felt by a patient is not aligned with the actual danger presented by a given situation. For example, an individual who has an anxiety disorder attached to a medical condition may experience overwhelming anxiety leading to a panic attack surround a mild symptom of their medical condition.
Types of Anxiety
There are many different anxiety disorder diagnoses that fall under the broad heading of “anxiety.” Let’s take a moment to look at a few of the most common.
Agoraphobia: This type of anxiety disorder is marked by a fear of (usually public) spaces that may trigger anxiety and a panic attack. Common locations include malls, airplanes, and grocery stores.
- Panic disorder: Panic disorder is characterized by intense symptoms of anxiety (listed above) rapidly accelerating in intensity. This can lead to avoidance of the panic trigger for the patient.
- Selective mutism: This form of anxiety presents most often in children. Children will be unable to speak (mute) due to anxiety in one scenario but not in another. For example, a young student may be unable to speak in the classroom, but they have no problems speaking at home.
- Separation anxiety disorder: Some level of separation anxiety is considered normal for toddlers and young children. This usually manifests itself when children become anxious when separated from one or both parents. When this anxiety becomes detrimental to a child’s productivity, or when it persists to an older age, it can be considered a separation anxiety disorder, in some contexts.
- Social anxiety disorder: Often abbreviated as “social anxiety,” this disorder is relatively common in the United States. According to a 2017 study, roughly 7.1% of US adults were living with social anxiety. This manifests itself in individuals in social settings. Often, they can become overwhelmingly anxious about the things they say or the way in which they are perceived.
- Specific phobias: Most people know this kind of anxiety simply as a “phobia.” This could be a phobia of spiders, dogs, or certain foods. Interaction with these specific triggers can cause an individual with a phobia to have a panic attack.
Symptoms and Causes
Anxiety can manifest itself in many different ways in different people. Let’s take a look at some of the most common symptoms.
- Feeling nervous, restless, tense
- Experiencing a sense of impending danger, doom, or panic
- Having an increased heart rate
- Sweating or trembling
- Feeling weak or tired
- Trouble concentrating on things other than the present worry
- Trouble sleeping
- Gastrointestinal (GI) problems
- Difficulty controlling worry
- Excessively avoiding things that may trigger anxiety
Typically, these symptoms are experienced in conjunction with a “trigger” for the person that is experiencing the anxiety.
If some of these symptoms sound familiar to you or a loved one, it may be a good idea to contact a physician. Your physician will likely do two things when attempting to diagnose any type of anxiety disorder.
- Psychological evaluation: This is usually the first step that your physician or psychiatrist will undergo. The evaluation involves discussion around the anxiety that an individual is experiencing and attempting to better understand any root causes. A physician will also likely check for any correlation to other health problems such as addiction or depression.
- Symptom comparison: After an evaluation, a physician will likely compare your symptoms to those listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5). This manual is the diagnostic guide to a large portion of mental health disorders. If the symptoms match those listed in the DSM-5, a diagnosis may be likely.
Treatments for anxiety disorders fall into two broad categories. Let’s take a look at each.
- Psychotherapy: This branch of medicine attempts to treat mental health disorders through a technique also known as talk therapy or psychological counseling. One of the most effective and widespread forms of psychotherapy is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This technique aims to “retrain” your brain to prevent the anxiety that comes along with a specific trigger. Often, this can involve “exposure therapy” whereby a patient is exposed to their specific trigger in small, but increasing, doses.
- Medications: Many different types of medications exist to treat many different types of anxiety disorders. What medication a physician may prescribe is largely dependent on an individual’s personal medical history. In some cases, certain antidepressant medications are used to treat anxiety, and, in some cases, medications specific to certain types of anxiety are more common.
If any of these symptoms or conditions sound familiar to you or a loved one, don’t hesitate to contact your physician. Many other resources exist to provide factual, evidence-based information about anxiety and anxiety-related disorders, so don’t hesitate to seek help for yourself or others.