What is an Anxiety Disorder?

Anxiety disorders are a subgroup of mental illnesses that cause high-levels of emotional distress. Most people will experience various levels of emotional distress as a natural response to daily stressors. For a person with an actual anxiety disorder, those levels are experienced as being far more extreme. For many people living with an anxiety disorder, the distress levels can often interfere with that person’s ability to comfortably carry on with normal activities of daily living.

What is the Difference Between Anxiety and an Anxiety Disorder? Doesn’t Everyone Get Anxious?

Fear and anxiety are natural responses to challenging situations that everyone experiences. As a natural response, the anxiety lifts when the situation has passed. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the response lingers and often intensifies, even when a threat no longer exists. The difference for someone with an anxiety disorder occurs when the experience of emotional distress reaches levels that repetitively prevent the person from living a normal life. Severe anxiety disorders can create problems at work and disrupt the harmony of personal relationships. Living with an untreated anxiety disorder, can lead to other issues like chronic depression and substance abuse.

What Causes an Anxiety Disorder?

As with most mental illnesses, that exact cause for why an anxiety disorder has developed isn’t able to be diagnosed in a general way. The reasons for why a person has an anxiety order can be as individual as the person themselves. Anxiety disorders can develop as the combined result of genetics, traumatic experiences, learned behavior patterns, and personality type. Anxiety disorders can also develop as a side effect from certain physical health issues. It is important to find a healthcare professional that can rule out any underlying physical causes, and help with determining the best course of treatment.

What are the Most Common Types of Anxiety Disorders?

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)– Effects approx. 6.8 million Americans, and causes intense levels of distress that linger on for days and even months. GAD will cause people to live in fear over things that haven’t happened, or may never happen. People with GAD tend to default to negative specs of every situation and worry excessively over things such as health, money, and work-related concerns. Concerns can also extend to more routine things such as eating, driving, and making appointments. GAD affects twice as many women as men, and can often interrupt a person from enjoying a normal life and maintaining healthy relationships.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)– An anxiety disorder that is often fueled by frightening thoughts, and ritualistic compulsions meant to prevent fearful ideas from coming into fruition. Obsessions are repetitive loops of thought that produce a specific emotion, such as fear of getting sick from someone else’s germs, or fear of being betrayed by a loved one, or fear of a home invasion during the night. The compulsion is the action a person feels compelled to take in order to control the worst from happening and lower the levels of anxiety being caused by the obsessive thought. For instance a person in obsessive fear of a fire, may compulsively check the oven over and over again to make sure it’s switched off. A person in obsessive fear of germs, may compulsively wash their hands several times a day in a ritualistic way.
  • Panic Disorder – Experienced as a sudden and unexpected episode of intense fear combined with a wave of physical symptoms such as chest pain, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, dizziness, sweatiness, and weakness. A person having a panic attack, can become flushed or experience numbness or tingling in their extremities. People often describe feelings of terror and a sense of being disconnected from reality during a panic attack. The onset of a panic attack can occur at any time, even when the person is asleep.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)– An anxiety disorder that develops after experiencing a traumatic event in which the person suffered or nearly suffered serious harm. Traumatic events such as losing a loved one, natural disasters, war, car accidents, and neglectful/abusive childhoods, are often followed by a period of time where the person experiences increased levels of fear, anxiety, grief, and anger. If these heightened levels of emotions persist, or become chronic, the person can develop triggers that cause them to relive the intense emotional pain from the past throughout their daily lives. Some cases are severe enough to prevent a person from being able to function at work, or maintain healthy relationships.
  • Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia)– An anxiety disorder experienced as overwhelming self-consciousness and extreme anxiety triggered by being in everyday social situations. A social phobia can be triggered by only one specific type of social situation, such as fear of public speaking, eating in front of other people, or going to crowded events. In its most severe form, social phobia can be triggered by just the thought of going out and being around other people.

How do I find the right healthcare professional for me?

Anxiety disorders can be diagnosed and treated by a variety of healthcare specialists including: Psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed counselors, clinical social workers, and psychiatric nurses. It is recommended that you do some research before choosing a therapist. Read reviews, and talk to more than one therapist before determining which one you feel the best about.

What Are the Common Symptoms Associated with Anxiety Disorder?

All forms of anxiety disorder share some general signs and symptoms including:

  • Panic, fear, and uneasiness
  • Insomnia, or over-sleeping
  • Restlessness, or inability to sit still or relax
  • Cold, sweaty, numb, or tingling sensation in the hand and feet
  • Shortness of breath, or rapid breathing
  • Feelings of chest tightness/restriction
  • Increased heart rate
  • Dry mouth, nausea, or dizziness
  • A pervading sense of impending danger

Who is at High-Risk for Developing Anxiety Disorders?

There are multiple reasons, both genetic and environmental, that contribute to being at high-risk for developing anxiety disorders. It is typically a combination of a few of the following most common factors:

  • Shyness during childhood
  • Being female
  • Having experienced, or currently being in poverty
  • Going through a divorce
  • Traumatic loss of a loved one
  • Exposure to abuse as a child or adult
  • A history of anxiety disorders in close relatives
  • Being raised by parents with mental illnesses or substance abuse issues

What types of treatment are available for Anxiety Disorders? Do they work?

At the recommendation of a healthcare professional, anxiety disorders are generally treated using a combination of medication and therapy.

Some of the most commonly prescribed medications for anxiety disorders include:

  • SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors)– This medication provides relief by inhibiting the absorption of serotonin by certain nerve cells in the brain, which leaves more serotonin available for mood enhancement.
  • SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors)– This medication has dual action of inhibiting the reabsorption of both serotonin and norepinephrine by nerve cells, which increases the levels available for mood enhancement.
  • Benzodiazepines– This class of medication is for short-term management of anxiety as an add-on treatment to alleviate the onset of the occasional anxiety attack. They are highly effective in promoting relaxation and releasing muscle tension, but are meant for short-term use. Long-term use can lead to problems with tolerance and dependence.

Some of most common form of therapy used to effectively treat anxiety disorders include:

  • Psychotherapy– Used to treat a broad variety of mental illnesses, psychotherapy takes place in a one-on-one setting with a therapist at least once a week. It’s also known as ‘talk therapy’ because the sessions are mainly about allowing a person to discuss their feelings and deal with their past in a safe and exploratory environment. Research shows that about 75% of people using psychotherapy experience relief and are better equipped to manage their emotions when they’ve gained greater insight into the underlying issues behind them.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)– This form of therapy places its focus on the person’s thought patterns and the negative effects that their thinking is having on their choices and emotions. The goal of CBT is to first identify self-defeating thought patterns and then intentionally replace the negative thought with something more helpful. CBT is a very structured approach to therapy often chosen by people who thrive on setting and completing small goals.
  • Self-Help or Support Groups– One of the most pervading symptoms of any mental disorder is isolation. Painful and intense levels of isolation can occur even within a person who is surrounded by others. Participating in support groups with other people who are having similar experiences, breaks the bubble of belief that one is alone and no one could possibly understand. Many report experiencing levels of relief as quickly as during or after their first meeting.
  • Stress-Management Techniques– These techniques vary and can be recommended by your healthcare professionals. They typically include: Deep breathing exercises, meditation, yoga or other forms of exercise, and getting out into nature.

Are Anxiety Disorder Medications Safe to Take While Pregnant?

The risk and benefits of taking anxiety medications while pregnant vary greatly on a case-by-case basis. A physician should always be consulted before beginning or changing any treatment plans.

What Works Best for Treating Children with Anxiety Disorders?

The most recent and widely accepted studies for treatment of anxiety disorders in children reveal that the most effective treatment is a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and SSRI medication. These two treatments were compared directly, and it was discovered that they are both equally effective, and work best when combined.

Are Anxiety Disorder Medications Safe for Children?

The FDA issued a warning that taking certain anti-anxiety medications can result in an increase in suicidal thoughts; however, the risk for suicide is really only present in those whom already have these tendencies and there have been no known cases of suicide as a result of a child taking anti-anxiety medication. The majority of children experience relief from anxiety and an ability to focus more on daily activities, but it is good to look out for signs of depression or dramatic changes in personality.

Are There Programs that Provide Financial Assistance for Therapy and Medications?

Many therapists and clinics offer therapy on a sliding scale, determined by the patient’s income. Ask about and research sliding scale options in your area.

What is Stress?

Stress is a very common and relatable physical response to anything that makes a person feel threatened. When the body senses a threat, be it real or imagined, it automatically responds by triggering the nervous system to release a flood of adrenaline and cortisol, otherwise known as stress hormones. These hormones prime our bodies to take emergency action facilitated by an elevated heart-rate, and a sense of impending urgency.

What are the Effects of Long-Term Exposure to Stress?

Long-term exposure to daily flooding of stress hormones to our system have been linked with lowering the immune system, and contributing to heart disease as well as certain cancers. On the flip side, children in unhealthy environments who are exposed regularly to stress show some benefits for developing self-protective skills, and heightened intuition for dangerous situations as a result of growing up in survival mode.

What are the Most Common Symptoms of Stress in Adults?

  • Emotional symptoms include: mood swings, irritability, difficulty relaxing, being easily overwhelmed, and a sense of loneliness or isolation.
  • Cognitive symptoms may include difficulty concentrating, racing thoughts, constant worry, selective loss of memory, and signs of poor judgement.
  • Physical Symptoms include headaches, joint pain, digestive issues, chest pain, dizziness, nausea, and increased heart rate.
  • Behavioral signs to look out for include over or under eating, self-isolation, procrastination, neglecting responsibilities, sleeping too much or too little, poor hygiene, using drugs or alcohol to relax, including nicotine, and nervous habits such as nail-biting, having excessive internal dialogues, and pacing back and forth.

What are the Most Common Symptoms of Stress in Children and Teenagers?

As a child it can be increasingly difficult to express emotions that they don’t quite understand. Some signs to look out for in children and teenagers dealing with stress are:

  • Irritability
  • Withdrawal from activities they once enjoyed
  • Over or under sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive complaining about school
  • Frequent crying, and expressions of worry

For teenagers it can be normal to begin to confide more in their peers than their parents, but some sign to look out for many include:

  • Abandoning long-time friendships for a new set of friends
  • Expressing excessive hostility toward parents and other authority figures
  • Signs of drug or alcohol abuse

What Mindsets are Most Effective for Dealing with Stress?

Extensive research has revealed the top ten mindsets of people who are most adept at alleviating and avoiding the symptoms of stress:

  1. Replacing negative thoughts with positive but realistic expectations
  2. The ability to confront one’s fears regarding the past, present and future.
  3. Relying on one’s own moral compass to make important decisions.
  4. Turning to a faith in a higher power, or spiritual practice.
  5. Asking for help and accepting social support from family and friends.
  6. Identifying and emulating strong role models.
  7. Practicing a healthy diet
  8. Having a regular exercise routine
  9. Practicing acceptance around situations that cannot be changed.
  10. Finding meaning and opportunity for growth in the midst of challenging circumstances.

What is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is experienced as a sudden, and gripping terror that overwhelms a person emotionally and physically. A panic attack usually occurs without warning, and often without any obvious immediate cause. Experiencing frequent panic attacks can be disabling, because a person never knows where or when the next one will strike.

How Common Are Panic Attacks?

At some point in their lives, around four to six million Americans will experience a panic attack. Panic attacks usually begin during young adulthood, but can develop later in life as well.

What Causes A Panic Disorder to Develop?

As with most mental illnesses, the exact cause of panic disorder is unknown. There are a variety of factors involved that result in a diagnosis of Panic Disorder including genetics, exposure to trauma, and learned behaviors as a result of being raised by parents with panic disorders. What is known, is that the mechanism in the brain that gauges the severity of a situation is prone to misfiring which creates a sort of “false alarm” response within the person.

What are the Symptoms of Panic Disorder?

There is only one main symptom that constitutes a verifiable panic disorder, and that is the frequent occurrence of sudden and unexpected panic attacks. A person with a panic disorder will carry with them the concern of having a sudden panic attack anywhere at any time. They will typically inhibit their lifestyles in order to prevent having panic attacks in public or at work.

What are the Risks Associated with Panic Disorder?

If left untreated, a panic disorder can have significant long-term consequences. Recent studies have shown that people living with untreated panic disorders:

  • Are more susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse
  • Have greater risk of suicide attempt
  • Spend less time enjoying hobbies and activities that bring them comfort and joy
  • Have increased difficulty being fully self-supporting
  • Can develop social and physical phobias around driving, being outside, and meeting new people

What Treatments are Available for Panic Disorder? Does it Work?

Research has revealed that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is very effective for treating a panic disorder. CBT is a very structured form of therapy that breaks down into four main components:

  1. Educating the person on the facts about what a panic disorder is and how it most likely developed within them as an individual. This creates an awareness around what situations are most likely to trigger a panic response.
  2. “Cognitive restructuring,” which basically means monitoring and changing one’s own thought patterns. Fear fueled thinking triggers a panic response. Catching those thoughts, challenging their validity and then replacing them with more realistic thinking, gives a person a strong sense of control over their panic responses and can allow them to move through possible attacks without becoming disabled.
  3. “Interoceptive Exposure,” which is gradual, controlled exposure to the sensations that trigger panic attacks within a therapeutic environment. You and your therapist develop a plan for gradually introducing triggers into your session, so that you can practice facing them in more realistic and measured ways.
  4. “Invivo Exposure,” which is the process in which a person overcomes the desire to avoid situations that they’ve come to associate with panic.