Everyone has feelings of anxiety at some point in their lives, and a certain amount of anxiety is normal. Anxiety disorders, however, are defined by excessive worry and hyperarousal that are disruptive to normal functioning. Anxiety is one of the most common mental disorders, with 19.1% of adults in the U.S. being affected in the past year. Anxiety can begin early in life, with an average age of onset of 11 years old, and it may range from mildly uncomfortable symptoms to severe and debilitating panic that can interfere with a person’s ability to live normally.
Levels of anxiety can be influenced by personality, coping strategies, life experiences, and gender. Anxiety levels are typically classified by the level of distress and impairment experienced into four categories: mild anxiety, moderate anxiety, severe anxiety and panic level anxiety.
Although often described as sub-clinical or clinically non-significant, mild anxiety can impact emotional, social and professional functioning. Mild anxiety symptoms may present as social anxiety or shyness and can be experienced in early childhood through to adulthood. If left unaddressed, mild anxiety can lead to maladaptive coping strategies or more severe mental conditions.
People with moderate levels of anxiety have more frequent or persistent symptoms than those with mild anxiety, but still have better daily functioning than someone with severe anxiety or panic disorder. For example, people with moderate anxiety may report experiencing symptoms such as feeling on edge, being unable to control their worrying or being unable to relax several days or the majority of days in a week, but not every day. Although moderate anxiety symptoms are disruptive, people with moderate anxiety may have success in managing their anxiety with the help of a doctor or self-help strategies.
Severe anxiety is intensely debilitating, and symptoms of severe anxiety meet key diagnostic criteria for clinically-significant anxiety disorder. People with severe anxiety typically score higher on scales of distress and lower on functioning. Severe anxiety symptoms also frequently co-occur with major depression, which can contribute to greater disability. Symptoms of severe anxiety are frequent and persistent and may include increased heart rate, feelings of panic and social withdrawal. These symptoms can result in loss of work and increased health care costs. In addition, individuals with severe anxiety may turn to alcohol and drugs as a means to cope with their symptoms.
Panic Level Anxiety
Panic level anxiety, or panic disorder, is characterized by frequent, recurring and unexpected panic attacks. A panic attack can include symptoms such as:
- Rapid onset of extreme fear
- Heart palpitations
- Rapid breathing
- Nausea or dizziness
- Fear of death
Panic attacks usually last around 10 minutes. The triggers for panic attacks vary from person to person, and the cause of an attack may be familiar to a person or unknown.
There are many different ways to manage anxiety, depending on the severity. For example, mild to moderate anxiety may be manageable through exercise, meditation or therapy. For more severe cases of anxiety, therapy, medication or a combination of treatment strategies may be most beneficial.
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Kelly, M.M., et al. “Sex differences in the use of coping strategies: predictors of anxiety and depressive symptoms.” Depress Anxiety, 2008. Accessed May 11, 2019.
Spitzer, R.L., et al. “Brief Measure for Assessing Generalized Anxiety Disorder: The GAD-7.” Arch Intern Med, 2006. Accessed May 11, 2019.
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