Awaiting test results, working against an impending deadline or expecting to hear negative news can all spur anxious thoughts. For some people, this state of worry dissipates when these moments pass, but for many individuals, anxiety is anything but fleeting. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting nearly 40 million adults each year. People who face anxiety disorders constantly struggle with anxious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors against their will. Thankfully, anxiety disorders are highly treatable, and with the right care, anyone can manage anxiety.
What Are Anxiety Disorders?
The definition of anxiety may be well-known, but anxiety disorders are often misunderstood. The main difference between occasional anxious thoughts and an anxiety disorder lies in how someone reacts to environmental stressors. For people who have an anxiety disorder, their reactions to stimuli are often uncontrollable and disproportionate to what would be considered a “normal” reaction to any given situation. For example, someone with a social anxiety disorder may plan out specific, even cumbersome, ways in which to avoid a routine social interaction. If their plans are foiled, or if they are forced into socializing against their will, the person may experience a debilitating panic attack.
Social anxiety disorder is just one of many types of anxiety disorders. In clinical terms, anxiety is not one condition, but refers to a number of disorders, known collectively as anxiety disorders. Generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and social anxiety disorder (sometimes referred to as a social phobia) are the most common types of these conditions. These disorders have different triggers and nuances, but all can cause nervousness, stress, dread or worry that can be unmitigated, long-lasting and uncontrollable. Characteristically, anxiety disorders negatively impact a person’s thoughts and behaviors. However, if left untreated, anxiety disorders can impair someone’s daily functioning, disrupt their interpersonal relationships and degrade their physical health.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
There are several different types of anxiety disorders and each varies in its effects, causes and symptoms. The most common anxiety disorders include:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
One of the most well-known anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety disorder affects 6.8 million adults across America each year. This condition often leads people to worry about their everyday life to excessive and potentially harmful extents, without a legitimate cause for concern. What characterizes a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) as an actual disorder is that its symptoms are compulsory, and an individual who has GAD may find it impossible to control their feelings, emotions and reactions in their everyday life. They cannot simply “switch off” their anxiety, or wait patiently for it to pass.
For people who face this type of anxiety disorder, symptoms can include assuming the worst outcome will occur in every situation and feeling an overwhelming sense of dread, often without reason. Other symptoms of GAD may include someone feeling convinced that their health, finances, career, or the well-being of their loved ones is in danger, even if there is no cause for alarm. Most people who experience GAD cannot precisely pinpoint what they fear, but their daily worrying can escalate to the point where they struggle to function normally.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is more common than people might assume and affects almost 15 million Americans each year. This condition is frequently reduced to a social phobia, but the effects of this disorder can severely impair someone’s personal and professional life. People who struggle with SAD fear the judgment of their peers and are afraid of embarrassing themselves in public, so they avoid or limit their social interactions.
While most people feel this fear to minimal degrees, people who face a social anxiety disorder will go out of their way, often to the detriment of their normal lives, to protect themselves from stress-inducing, social situations. Individuals with social anxiety disorder may dread a set social event for weeks in advance, and can experience anxiety attacks at the prospect of being in a public area where they perceive a possibility of judgment, even if this is unlikely.
Affecting 2.2 million American adults every year, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) causes people to experience unreasonable thoughts or feelings (obsessions) that cause them to repeat specific behaviors (compulsions). For example, someone who fears for their safety may check the locks on their doors and windows more times than is necessary, and an individual who fears infection may wash their hands repeatedly in succession.
In other cases of OCD, obsessions can include concerns about food contamination, the perceived need for symmetry and the compulsive arranging of objects. In most contexts, these can be healthy and acceptable behaviors, but the compulsive activities associated with OCD can be disruptive and irrational, and the thoughts driving these actions are oftentimes persistent and intrusive.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects 8 million Americans each year, and is common among first responders, firefighters and military personnel. Anyone who has experienced significant trauma (a motor vehicle accident, domestic violence, rape, etc.) or who witnessed a natural disaster, death or an incidence of terrorism can develop PTSD. People who face post traumatic stress disorder struggle to cope with flashbacks, paranoid thoughts and other mental illnesses like depression. They may also become uncharacteristically aggressive toward their loved ones and might misuse drugs or alcohol to dull the memory of the trauma they experienced.
Almost as common as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder affects six million American adults each year. People who face a panic disorder experience brief and unexpected periods of abject fear that can lead to trembling, loss of balance, breathing difficulties and nausea. While people who do not face a panic disorder might experience these symptoms in a legitimately frightening or disturbing situation, individuals who struggle with this disorder experience recurring panic attacks in non-threatening environments.
For many people, the symptoms of a panic attack can pass within minutes, but for individuals with a panic disorder, these attacks can occur several times daily and can last for long periods of time. Unpredictable bouts of panic can arise alarmingly fast for people who have this disorder, and even the apprehension of an impending panic attack can trigger its own panic attack. For this reason, individuals with panic disorder may change their behavior and avoid certain places that they perceive may cause panicked episodes.
Nearly 19 million American adults struggle with debilitating phobias. A phobia is an irrational, intense fear of an object, place or situation. Many phobias involve animals, germs, heights, weather conditions and medical procedures. For people who struggle with agoraphobia, even public spaces like elevators, trains and planes can trigger an extreme fear response.
A phobia differs from a passing discomfort in three ways: phobias persist for more than six months, exposure to the phobia trigger causes an immediate, involuntary response (trembling, sweating, etc.) and the reaction to the phobia is inappropriate, given the context of the situation. People with specific phobias may realize that their fear is unfounded, given there is no legitimate threat to their safety, but may be unable to control their extreme fear response.
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Short Term Disorders
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, several specific types of anxiety disorders may be short-term in nature and can be resolved with the removal of a stressor. Short-term anxiety disorders can include:
- Adjustment disorder with anxious features: Symptoms of this condition can arise in relation to a life-changing event, like moving to a new place or getting married, and usually last for six months or less.
- Acute stress disorder: Following a traumatic event, people may experience acute stress. The symptoms of this condition are generally short-lived, given that the acute stress does not develop into post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Substance-induced anxiety disorder: This type of anxiety can co-occur with a drug or alcohol use disorder, but is usually resolved with the cessation of drug use and the completion of the withdrawal process.
Long Term Disorders
The majority of anxiety disorders are long-term by nature. These chronic conditions do not normally go away on their own and the symptoms of each disorder can last for years without proper treatment. Long-term anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Panic disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Social anxiety disorder (frequently referred to as social phobia)
- Specific phobias, including agoraphobia
Anxiety Disorder Symptoms
Although specific side effects vary from one type of anxiety disorder to the next, all anxiety disorders share one basic symptom: a persistent, overwhelming sense of fear in settings that are not life-threatening.
In addition to feelings of fear, anxiety disorder symptoms can be emotional and physical. Some of the most common side effects of anxiety include:
- Feelings of apprehension or dread
- Irritability and restlessness
- Anticipating negative outcomes
- Pounding heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Upset stomach, diarrhea or frequent urination
Regardless of the specific disorder someone faces, the signs of an anxiety attack are fairly standardized across all anxiety disorders and may include:
- Muscle tension
- Uncontrollable tremors
- Pain, either generalized or localized
- Rapid heartbeat
- Flushed skin
Symptoms in Children and Teenagers
As many anxiety disorders develop early in life, anxiety disorders in children are an unfortunate reality. Children and teens who struggle with an anxiety disorder may experience excessive fearfulness, nervousness and shyness, and may avoid certain activities and situations, even if they are completely safe.
Research shows that anxiety disorders in children and teens can cause:
- Irritability and mood swings
- Poor performance in school
- Aversion to social settings
- Substance misuse
How Are Anxiety Disorders Diagnosed?
Medical professionals can diagnose anxiety disorders through consulting the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and by thoroughly evaluating an individual’s physical and psychological health. Diagnosing an anxiety disorder can involve a confidential discussion to identify anxious thought patterns, a comprehensive physical exam and various lab tests. Each step in this process is necessary to pinpoint which anxiety disorder someone struggles with, as many anxiety disorder symptoms mimic those of other conditions, like heart disease and hyperthyroidism.
Anxiety Disorder Causes
Scientists believe that the causes of anxiety disorders are varied and can involve a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, personality, brain chemistry and traumatic life events. Some people are more susceptible than others to developing anxiety disorders, and this is due to a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors, including:
- Genetic factors: family history of anxiety disorders, anxiety disorders occurring in immediate family members (parents or siblings)
- Environmental factors: trauma from past abuse or victimization, financial problems, interpersonal relationship stress, career-related stress or academic instability
- Medical-related factors: stress from a serious medical illness, side effects of medication, and in some cases, prescription drug addiction
Anxiety disorders affect millions of adults, children and teens around the globe every year. The statistics surrounding these conditions paint a grim picture of the reality of anxiety, both in the United States and beyond:
- According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 264 million people worldwide struggled with anxiety in 2015
- Anxiety disorders affect almost 40 million adults each year in the United States
- An estimated 31.1 percent of American adults will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime
- Approximately 8 percent of American children and teenagers experience a type of anxiety disorder
- Of Americans who face an anxiety disorder, only 36.9 percent receive treatment
The interaction of both genetic and environmental factors can influence an individual’s likelihood of experiencing an anxiety disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, specific risk factors for anxiety disorders include:
- Exposure to trauma
- Experiencing stressful life events in adolescence
- Being female (women are significantly more likely than men to face generalized anxiety disorder)
- Shyness, or behavioral inhibition
- Being divorced or widowed
- Family history of anxiety disorders
- Having few economic resources
Anxiety and Substance Abuse
Many people living with an anxiety disorder attempt to self-medicate their racing thoughts and overwhelming worries by misusing drugs or alcohol. Although this can provide temporary relief, it does not address the underlying causes of the anxiety disorder. Instead, repeated drug or alcohol use can contribute to an addiction that only exacerbates the effects of their anxiety disorder. If someone struggles with a substance use disorder and a co-occurring anxiety disorder, they can benefit from treatment that addresses both conditions simultaneously.
Anxiety Disorder Treatment
Anxiety disorder treatment may not seem like a necessity in the eyes of the general public. However, for someone with an anxiety disorder, this kind of care can mean the difference between a life of fear and one of mental wellness.
For many individuals, anxiety disorder treatment may be necessary because:
- Their anxious thoughts and reactions are disproportionate to the stimuli: they may be overly reactive, exaggerated and otherwise indicative of a more serious concern
- Their anxiety is disruptive to their daily lives: anxiety robs them of sleep, a healthy diet and keeps them from reaching their desired professional performance
- The side effects of their anxiety can be long-lasting: the Journal of the American Medical Association says six months is the threshold for the positive diagnosis of an anxiety disorder
Treatment for Anxiety Disorder
For individuals struggling with an anxiety disorder (and not a co-occurring substance use disorder), effective anxiety disorder treatment options can include:
- Psychotherapy: Commonly referred to as “talk therapy,” psychotherapy helps individuals understand the root causes of their anxiety and develop actionable coping strategies that they can use in everyday life.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): A specific type of psychotherapy, CBT teaches individuals new patterns of thinking and reacting to stress-inducing situations.
- Exposure therapy: With this therapy, the person is gradually and carefully exposed to the situations that would trigger an anxiety attack. With the supervision of a therapist, the person is shown that the situations do not cause actual harm.
- Medication assistance: Under the guidance of a primary care doctor or pharmacist, individuals can take medications to help them manage their anxiety. Commonly prescribed anti-anxiety medications include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, tricyclic antidepressants and benzodiazepines.
Alternative treatment: Lifestyle changes can go a long way in helping someone cope with their anxiety. Meditation, yoga, acupuncture, exercise regimens and relaxation techniques are all holistic anxiety treatments that can be useful for anxiety management.
If someone struggles with a drug or alcohol addiction and an anxiety disorder simultaneously, their anxiety disorder treatment may include psychotherapy, medication and alternative treatments, but rehab care may also be essential. For people who face both of these disorders, rehab care can involve:
- Treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction: At The Recovery Village, this can mean enrolling in a variety of programs, from medical detoxification through outpatient treatment.
- Co-occurring mental disorder counseling: Individual psychotherapy, along with group and family counseling, are included in every level of care at The Recovery Village. Co-occurring mental disorder counseling helps people overcome their addiction and anxiety disorder in a safe and supportive manner.
Anxiety disorders can be unpleasant and debilitating, but they do not have to be a way of life. Effective treatment to help you (or a loved one) overcome anxiety and substance misuse may be closer than you think. Get started by calling The Recovery Village at 352.771.2700 today.