Anxiety is a common and completely natural reaction to stress. We all know the feeling: knots in your stomach, nervousness, a sense of dread. If we’re starting a new job, taking an important test, or experiencing a difficult situation, these are normal feelings. However, when we constantly feel anxious and it begins to interfere with daily activities, then it becomes a problem.
Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health issues. According to the Anxiety And Depression Association of America, 18.1% of the U.S. population suffers from an anxiety disorder every year. Furthermore, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that 1 in every 13 people worldwide suffers from an anxiety disorder.
If you or someone you love suffer from anxiety, it’s important to understand the symptoms, types, causes, and the treatment options that are available.
Types of Anxiety Disorders and Symptoms
There are a number of different anxiety disorders. These can range from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) to panic disorder. There may be some overlap in symptoms between disorders, but each is distinct and has its own unique set of identifiers.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Generalized anxiety disorder, commonly abbreviated to GAD, is a relatively common disorder. People living with GAD experience excessive worry on an almost daily basis. In order to receive a diagnosis, anxiety must persist for at least six months. Individuals with GAD may feel constant worry about their health, relationships, work performance, or social interactions.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder Symptoms
Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder often include:
- Excessive, usually irrational worry.
- Inability to control worrying thoughts.
- Restlessness and agitation.
- Difficulties falling or staying asleep.
- Muscle tension and aches.
- Feeling fatigued or exhausted.
- Difficulty concentrating.
While these are common symptoms of normal anxiety, someone who suffers from GAD will display these symptoms almost daily and for at least six months. They’ll often experience unwarranted worry that interferes with their life, work, and relationships.
It’s common to experience a few panic attacks throughout life. However, someone living with panic disorder will experience attacks on a regular basis. In severe cases, individuals may have panic attacks on an almost daily basis. In addition, someone who suffers from panic disorder will have high levels of anxiety about suffering from another attack.
Panic Disorder Symptoms
Symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Chest tightness or pain.
- Racing heartbeat or palpitations.
- Feeling a “lump” in the throat or sensation of choking.
- Shortness of breath.
- Shaking, trembling, and chills.
- Cold sweats.
- Intense feelings of dread or fear.
Fear of impending panic attacks is another key symptom of panic disorder. Individuals who regularly experience panic attacks may worry about having another one – especially since they are unpredictable. At times, this fear can be so intense that it triggers a panic attack.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Whereas generalized anxiety disorder is a persistent feeling of worry, social anxiety disorder typically only occurs in response to social situations. Someone suffering from social anxiety worries that they will embarrass themselves and be negatively judged by the people they are interacting with. This disorder can make it difficult to talk with others, meet someone new, or attend social events.
Social Anxiety Disorder Symptoms
Someone who suffers from social anxiety disorder will experience a variety of symptoms, including:
- Excessive worry about social situations, often days or weeks before the event.
- Intense fear of embarrassment in front of others.
- Rapid heart rate in social situations.
- Difficulty speaking or asking questions.
- Nausea or stomach aches.
- Sweating, chills, or dizziness.
An important note about social anxiety disorder are the intense feelings of worry or dread before social situations. A person with social anxiety disorder will often begin to feel anxiety days or weeks in advance of a social event. Because of this, they will often try to avoid all social situations.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a disorder that occurs after a person experiences a traumatic event. While PTSD is typically associated with combat veterans, anyone can be affected by the disorder. Examples of traumatic events which trigger PTSD can include:
- A natural disaster.
- Military combat.
- Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.
- A life-threatening or near fatal accident.
After such a traumatic event, an individual’s fight-or-flight response can become altered. Typically, this causes a general sense of fear or anxiety when no actual danger is present. It’s also important to note that PTSD can be caused by non-life threatening or dangerous situations. Additional examples include the sudden death of a loved one or losing a child during childbirth.
Symptoms of PTSD
Someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder may experience the following symptoms:
- Flashbacks or nightmares about the event.
- Intrusive, unpleasant memories of the event.
- Avoidance of people, places, or situations that remind the person of the event.
- Persistent feelings of fear or anxiety.
- A sense of always being “on edge.”
- Irritability and sudden bouts of anger.
- Negative thoughts about themselves or guilt.
Individuals with PTSD will also often experience panic attacks or depression. Severe PTSD can derail a person’s life, making it difficult for them to work or maintain relationships.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Double-checking to make sure the stove is turned off or that you locked the car is normal behavior. A person living with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, feels compelled to complete certain rituals like these repeatedly. This can include checking a specific number of times to ensure they turned off the lights or repeatedly washing their hands. These rituals are known as compulsions.
A person with OCD can also experience obsessive thoughts that may be unrelated to their compulsions. In addition, it’s possible to experience only compulsions, obsessive thoughts, or to experience both.
Symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder can be defined as either obsessions or compulsions:
- Irrational need for order, cleanliness, or symmetry.
- Unwanted and disturbing imagery or thoughts.
- Fear that obsessive thoughts can cause harm to yourself or others.
- Repeatedly checking objects such as stoves or locked doors.
- Washing hands or cleaning surfaces multiple times.
- Counting or organizing items to equal or avoid certain numbers or arrangements.
- Hoarding items to prevent bad events from happening.
- Touching or tapping items a specific number of times, often before or after using them.
These are only a few of the most common obsessions and compulsions a person with OCD may experience. Generally, both obsessions and compulsions stem from underlying anxieties, usually an irrational fear of becoming sick or harmful events.
Like with any mental health disorder, it’s common for anxiety disorders to occur alongside other conditions. While there are a large number of co-occurring disorders, the most common are detailed below.
Anxiety and Depression
While depression and anxiety can occur separately, it’s not uncommon for someone struggling with one to also experience the other. Depression itself can lead to anxiety. Alternatively, a person suffering from an anxiety disorder may find themselves feeling depressed as a result. Other times, chemical imbalances in the brain or inherited genetic traits can cause both disorders to occur.
Anxiety and Eating Disorders
It’s not uncommon for someone with anxiety to also suffer from an eating disorder. At times, anxiety disorders can lead to eating disorders, including bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa. The most common anxiety disorder to co-occur with an eating disorder is OCD. Other times, a person may develop an eating disorder as a way to cope with their anxiety and feel in control of their life.
Anxiety and Substance Abuse
Anxiety disorders and substance abuse co-occur at high rates. It’s not uncommon for someone suffering from anxiety to turn to alcohol or other substances as a way to cope. On the other hand, abuse of certain drugs, including prescription medications, can cause anxiety as a side effect. Unfortunately, withdrawal symptoms from many substances can make anxiety even worse.
Causes of Anxiety Disorders
Like many mental health disorders, anxiety rarely has a direct cause. Generally, researchers believe anxiety disorders stem from genetic and environmental factors, and brain chemistry.
Genetic Causes of Anxiety
Individuals with a family history of anxiety disorders are at greater risk of developing one themselves. This risk is especially high for people who have a parent with anxiety. In addition, people with certain personality traits tend to be more prone to certain anxiety disorders. For example, individuals with traits of shyness tend to be at higher risk for anxiety.
Environmental Causes of Anxiety
Children and teens who grow-up experiencing trauma or abuse are significantly more likely to develop anxiety disorders. Likewise, adults who experience a traumatic event or who endure high levels of daily stress are also increasingly prone to anxiety.
Brain Chemistry and Anxiety
Research into mental health disorders continues to uncover connections between anxiety and brain development, chemistry, and overall health. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that allow nerve cells to communicate. When these chemicals, such as serotonin, are imbalanced, they can cause changes in mood, anxiety, and depression.
Some medication-based treatments for anxiety try to correct these imbalances. However, currently, scientists have been unable to develop a reliable test to find chemical imbalances.
Treatment for Anxiety
Generally, anxiety disorders are treated through medication, therapy, or a combination of both.
Medications are commonly turned to as a treatment for anxiety. The use of medication can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety disorders, but do not “cure” them. It may take time for a person and their doctor to find the best medication and dosage to best manage symptoms.
While a certain drug might work well for one person, it may have little to no effect for someone else. There are two types of drugs commonly used to treat anxiety: Anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) drugs and antidepressants.
Anti-anxiety medications may help reduce the symptoms of anxiety disorders. The most commonly prescribed medications are called benzodiazepines. Generally, benzodiazepines are effective in relieving anxiety symptoms and work quicker than antidepressant medications. However, over a long period of time, an individual can develop a tolerance for benzodiazepines.
In addition, people may become dependent on them. In these cases, individuals who stop taking benzodiazepines after long-term use experience a dangerous and even life-threatening withdrawal. For this reason, they are typically prescribed by treatment professionals for short-term use only.
Antidepressants are often turned to as a long-term treatment for anxiety. While they are used to treat depression, antidepressants are also commonly prescribed for anxiety treatment. They may help to treat imbalances in certain brain chemicals that affect mood. It may take several tries before finding an antidepressant that improves symptoms.
There are many evidence-based therapy treatments for anxiety. Regardless of the approach, therapy should be tailored to the individual’s unique symptoms and treatment needs. Therapies can vary from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to group counseling or even family therapy sessions.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a common approach to treating anxiety disorders. As the name implies, CBT aims to help patients alter negative thoughts and behaviors. It focuses on identifying and reducing the underlying thought patterns within an anxiety disorder.
Interpersonal Therapy (IPT), differs from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy by teaching strategies and skills to help patients improve relationships in their life. This can be especially helpful in situations where high levels of stress are stemming from family life.
Group therapy provides an opportunity for individuals to share their experiences, offer advice to others, and receive input from peers who are also struggling with mental illness. Generally, group sessions will include elements of other forms of talk therapy, but with an emphasis on relating to others who are living with similar anxiety conditions.
Start Your Path to Recovery
The experienced treatment staff at High Focus Centers is trained in multiple types of therapy. We utilize evidence-based treatment models to help adults and teenagers with mental health conditions including anxiety. If you or someone you love is living with anxiety, our team is ready to help you begin your path to recovery.