The Facts on Anxiety Disorders
Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time as a result of a situation that we perceive as threatening, such as having to do an oral presentation, having a near-miss with a car, or waiting for the results of a lab test.
Some level of anxiety can even be helpful. Anxiety can help people deal with a threatening situation, study harder for an exam, and perform better in sports. Anxiety is not necessarily harmful and usually only lasts a short period of time.
But when anxiety becomes persistent and interferes with the ability to cope and disrupts daily life, the person may have an anxiety disorder. There are several types of anxiety disorders. They include:
- panic attack or panic disorder (sudden anxiety that occurs without warning) with or without agoraphobia (avoiding specific situations, such as public places or places where crowds gather, from which they can't easily escape)
- specific phobias (many types of intense fear reactions of specific objects or situations, such as fear of spiders, flying, or heights)
- social anxiety or social phobia (fear of being embarrassed in social situations)
- generalized anxiety disorder (general feeling of anxiety most of the time)
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (unwanted thoughts or behaviours that are repetitive and unnecessary)
- post-traumatic stress disorder (anxiety associated with and occurring after a stressful life event)
Anxiety disorders often occur together with other medical conditions, such as depression, eating disorders, or substance use problems.
Anxiety disorders are the most common of all mental disorders. About 1 out of every 4 adults has an anxiety disorder sometime in their life and about 1 out of every 10 people currently has an anxiety disorder. They are more common in women and can affect children and adults.
Many people misunderstand these disorders and think they can get over them on their own (i.e., without treatment). This is usually not the case. Fortunately, there are many treatments available today to help.
Causes of Anxiety Disorders
Although researchers don't know exactly why some people experience anxiety disorders, they do know that there are various factors involved. Like many other mental health conditions, anxiety disorders seem to be a result of a combination of biological, psychological, and other individual factors.
How we think and react to certain situations can affect anxiety. Some people may perceive certain situations to be more dangerous than they actually are (e.g., fear of flying). Others may have had a bad experience and they fear this will happen again (e.g., a dog bite). Some psychologists believe that childhood experiences can also contribute to anxiety.
Researchers know that problems with brain chemistry can contribute to the development of anxiety disorders. Certain neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in the brain involved in anxiety include serotonin, norepinephrine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Researchers have also shown that changes in activity in certain areas of the brain are involved in anxiety. Many anxiety disorders run in families and likely have a genetic cause.
Certain medical conditions such as anemia and thyroid problems can also cause symptoms of anxiety. As well, other factors such as caffeine, alcohol, and certain medications can cause anxiety symptoms.
Traumatic life events such as the death of a family member, witnessing a death, war, and natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes may trigger anxiety disorders.
Symptoms and Complications of Anxiety Disorders
Many symptoms of anxiety are common to all types of anxiety disorders. Other symptoms are more specific to a certain type of anxiety disorder. Listed below are some of the most common symptoms associated with each type of anxiety disorder.
- Panic attack or panic disorder involves sudden anxiety that occurs without warning. Symptoms can include chest pain, heart palpitations, sweating, shortness of breath, feeling of unreality, trembling, dizziness, nausea, hot flashes or chills, a feeling of losing control, or a fear of dying. Panic attacks are extremely common - 10% to 20% of the population experience a panic attack at some point in their life. Some people start to avoid situations that might trigger a panic attack; this is called panic attack with agoraphobia. A panic attack usually lasts 10 minutes or less, but it can last longer. Panic disorder is much less common. Panic disorder refers to recurring feelings of terror and fear, which come on unpredictably without any clear trigger.
- Phobias involve a fear of something specific, such as an animal, storms, heights, or flying. Symptoms can include sweating, muscle tension, and dizziness. People may also go to extremes to avoid the situation they fear.
- Social anxiety, also known as social phobia, involves excessive anxiety in social situations where people fear being embarrassed or made fun of. Situations that can trigger social anxiety include small group discussions, dating, going to a party, and playing sports. Common symptoms of social anxiety include blushing, sweating, and dry mouth. People with social phobia often avoid social situations that cause anxiety.
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is associated with continual excessive anxiety and worry about a number of things (e.g., work, money, children, and health). There is no specific source of fear. Symptoms can include muscle tension, trembling, shortness of breath, fast heartbeat, dizziness, dry mouth, nausea, sleeping problems, and poor concentration.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) involves recurring unpleasant thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviours (compulsions). The thoughts may be connected to the repetitive behaviours. For example, people who fear getting an infection may constantly wash their hands. At times, however, there's no connection at all between the thoughts and the behaviours.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is associated with extreme anxiety that appears after a traumatic experience. Symptoms usually start within 3 months of the traumatic event but may take years to start. PTSD can be associated with sleep problems, nightmares, irritability, and anger. Feelings of guilt and unworthiness are common with PTSD. Traumatic experiences that can trigger PTSD include wars, plane crashes, natural disasters (e.g., hurricane, earthquake), and violent crimes (e.g., rape, abuse).
Complications of anxiety disorders are mostly linked to feelings of inadequacy or depression, because people with these conditions know their behaviour is irrational and damaging to their lives. Depression is particularly common with anxiety disorders.
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