Definition and Overview
Anxiety is a term used to describe a range of psychological disorders that is characterized by fear, nervousness, apprehension and incessant worrying. Although anxiety is common in everyday situations, it becomes a disturbing mental disorder when it largely affects how one behaves, thinks, and feels. It also becomes a major concern when it interferes with the person’s ability to live a normal, productive life.
Causes of Anxiety
The definite cause of anxiety is still unknown. However, years of research have established that this condition is caused by a combination of different factors. It is believed that just like any mental disorder, anxiety is caused by the inability of the nerves in the brain to regulate emotions and fear. Stress, for example, can alter how nerve cells in the brain’s complex circuitry communicate from one part of the brain to another. This causes changes in the structures that control emotion. This occurrence, in turn, is caused by one’s genetic makeup or family history.
Environmental factors such as childhood trauma (due to abuse, untimely death of a parent, etc.) or any major problem in life (such as financial breakdown and failed personal relationship) can cause the onset of anxiety. In addition, anxiety symptoms may be linked other medical conditions including hyperthyroidism, endocrine problems, low blood sugar, calcium deficiency, and cardiovascular problems. Use of prohibited drugs, such as cocaine, can also lead to anxiety problems.
It is important to note that anxiety disorder is not related to weakness in character or poor upbringing.
Symptoms of Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety is linked to a normal response to difficult situations. In fact, being anxious can be quite helpful in certain situations where a “fight or flight” response is necessary, where adrenaline is released to respond and stop a threat. However, when the response is unsettling and out-of-proportion, if it persists over long periods, or you find yourself worrying irrationally about the simplest of things (to the amazement of people around you), it might be anxiety disorder. Symptoms of anxiety disorder include some or a combination of the following:
- Feeling irritable, restless and on the edge
- Inability to focus or stay calm
- Insomnia and sleep problems
- Feeling scared, panicked and uneasy
- Unexplained heart palpitations
- Cold, sweaty and clammy hands and/or feet
- Tingling sensation or numbness in the hands or feet
- Muscle tension
- Nausea and dizziness
- Dry mouth
Types of Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders can be further classified into a number of specific types, which are as follows:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) - This is a chronic condition where one suffers from a long-lasting, excessive anxiety over non-specific situations or events. Patients with GAD worry about money, health, work, or family but are unable to pinpoint what particular issue they are worried about.
Panic Disorder - People with this kind of anxiety disorder suffer from sudden and brief attacks of intense fear and apprehension.
Phobia - This condition is characterized by an unexplained terror and avoidance of a specific object or situation, such as height, spiders or flying. Unlike GAD where the cause is unknown, phobia is a fear response that has an identified cause, which is often unnecessary. Although the fear is irrational, phobia sufferers are unable to control their feelings of fear.
Social Anxiety Disorder - Also referred to as social phobia, this disorder involves extreme worry and an unhealthy self-consciousness of the most mundane of social situations. Patients with social phobia would avoid social gatherings for fear of being judged or of behaving in ways that would cause embarrassment.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) - This type of anxiety disorder involves actions and thoughts that are distressing and repetitive. For example, some people with OCD may be obsessed with clean hands that they wash their hands every hour. OCD sufferers are aware that their behavior is irrational but are not able to get on top of their compulsion.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) - This type of anxiety is caused by previous trauma such as a serious accident, rape or witnessing a serious crime. PTSD often causes behavioral changes in hopes to avoid the stimuli.
Separation Anxiety Disorder - Patients with separation anxiety disorder would experience extreme levels of anxiety and excessive panic when they separate from a place or person that gives them a feeling of safety and security.
Treatment Options for Anxiety Disorder
People who experience the symptoms mentioned above should consider consulting a psychiatrist or psychologist, who are trained to diagnose anxiety disorders. A mental health assessment is usually performed, which involves thorough observation and discussion of your symptoms, as well as a comprehensive evaluation of your family history. Based on your answers and the standard manual for diagnosis of anxiety disorders, your doctor should be able to identify the type of anxiety problem you have, what triggers it, and what treatment options are available for you.
There are two general options for treating anxiety disorders:
Talking/Non-drug Treatment - Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most commonly used and effective treatments for anxiety. Your psychotherapist will help you understand your thought patterns and identify any bad thought, idea or behavior that leads to your anxiety so you can avoid them in the future. Mental health professionals may also recommend the following depending on the severity of your condition: counseling (which focuses on improving problem-solving skills), hypnotherapy and relaxation sessions, and anxiety management courses.
Medication - Anxiety attacks can also be managed by medications such as anti-depressants, tranquilizers like benzodiazepines (diazepam), buspirone, beta-blocker drugs (like propranolol) and pregabalin. These medications can ease the symptoms by altering the balance of anxiety-related chemicals in the brain.
There is yet to be one sole effective treatment method for anxiety disorders. However, with the combination of the aforementioned options together with constant consultation and counselling, symptoms of anxiety can be easily managed. Lifestyle modifications such as regular physical exercise, breathing exercises, self-relaxation techniques, and yoga can be very beneficial. It has also been found that people suffering from anxiety disorders can control or lessen the frequency of their anxiety attacks by avoiding caffeine-containing food such as coffee, cola, and chocolate.
- Crosta, Peter (2009). Medical News Today Knowledge Center: “All About Anxiety”
- Starcevic, Vladan(2005) Anxiety Disorders in Adults: A Clinical Guide. Oxford University Press.