Anxiety Disorder

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The term anxiety disorder is an umbrella term for a large number of mental health disorders in which the primary feature is abnormal or inappropriate anxiety. As stressOpens in new window is the body’s short-term reaction to triggers, anxietyOpens in new window is the body’s long-term reaction to stress.

Anxiety is a feeling of fearOpens in new window, uneasiness that may cause you stress, restlessness accompanied with a rapid heartbeat. It can be a normal reaction to stress, for example, you might feel anxious when you focus on difficult problems at work, taking a test, or taking important decisions.

Everybody has experienced anxiety at some point. Think about the last time you went for a job interview. Remember the feelings inside your body as you waited nervously outside the interview room.

Chances are you experienced some of the common symptoms of anxiety like increased heart rate and tensed muscles.

You may have noticed an intensity of focus and even a sense of impending doom. These are all normal symptoms of anxiety.

These symptoms only become a problem when they occur without any particular reason to feel threatened. When this occurs repeatedly, normal anxiety could be turning into an anxiety disorder.

Common Types of Anxiety Disorders

Briefly described below, are the most common anxiety disorders:

  • Panic Disorder — Is characterized by sudden and unexplained panic attacksOpens in new window. These attacks usually last around ten minutes, and can manifest with symptoms such as heart palpitations, weakness, difficulty breathing, fainting, dizziness, and sweating.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder — This disorder often occurs in comorbidity with other anxiety disorders, depressionOpens in new window, specific phobiasOpens in new window, and eating disordersOpens in new window. Sufferers of OCDOpens in new window most often have repeated thoughts or feelings without their control, or are compelled to perform certain actions against their will.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress DisorderPTSDOpens in new window may arise at any time after a traumatic experience. It often coexists with other anxiety disorders, or with depression or substance abuse.
  • Social Anxiety Disorder — Is characterized by intense, often debilitating fear in social situations, and can disrupt or completely prevent the sufferer from having normal social interactions.
  • Specific Phobias — This anxiety disorder causes persistent and often irrational fear of certain objects or situations. These feelings of fear can greatly impair the life of the sufferer, forcing these persons to avoid certain locations or situations, and hindering their ability to exist peacefully with their surroundings.
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder — Is characterized by persistent and uncontrollable feelings of worry or anxiety without cause, or disproportionate feelings of worry over simple issues.

These are complex anxiety disorders and are thought to be caused by genetics, psychological factors, developmental issues, and environmental conditions. Some of the studies sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)Opens in new window have shown that unlike other anxiety disorders, PTSD is brought on by trauma.

According to the NIMHOpens in new window, “Anxiety disorders affect about 40 million American adults age 18 years and older (about 18%) in a given year, causing them to be filled with fearfulness and uncertainty.”

They go on to report the findings of a national survey of adolescent mental health: “About 8 percent of teens ages 13 – 18 have an anxiety disorder, with symptoms commonly emerging around age 6. However, of these teens, only 18 percent received mental health care.”

Mild anxiety is normal. However, intense anxiety is an overwhelming feeling of fear, worry, and dread of what may happen. If allowed to linger, it can lead to anxiety disorders.

Symptoms of anxiety disorders depend on the person but typically include irrational fearOpens in new window, dread, depressionOpens in new window, and substance abuseOpens in new window. But with early detection, the symptoms can be treated.

Treating Anxiety Disorders

CBTOpens in new window is the most common therapy used to treat anxiety disorders. CBTOpens in new window addresses negative patterns and distortions in the way we look at the world and ourselves. It is a combination of cognitive therapy (exploring how your thoughts contribute to anxiety) and behavior therapy (determining how your actions trigger anxiety).

CBTOpens in new window is administered by a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, or social worker. Over the course of several months, patients are guided through high-anxiety situations. For example, an OCD patient would be encouraged to get his hands dirty, wait, and then wash them when directed.

The idea is to gradually extend the waiting period until the OCD disorder disappears. A PTSD patient would be asked to recall the trauma that triggered the disorder. This recollection would be performed in a safe, supportive environment, with hopes that the disorder would be resolved.

Medications are prescribed to lessen the physical symptoms of anxiety disorders. Common medications include antianxiety drugsOpens in new window, antidepressantsOpens in new window, and beta-blockersOpens in new window. Although medication doesn’t cure anxiety disorders, it can help patients lead a normal, fulfilling life. Coping solutions are also recommended by medical professionals.

  1. Bourne, E.J. (2005). The anxiety and phobias workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
  2. Elliott, C.H., & Smith, L.L. (2002). Overcoming anxiety for dummies. New York: John Wiley.
  3. Ohman, A. (2008). Fear and anxiety. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 709 – 729). New York: Guilford.