September 20, 2014
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Mental Health

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What are anxiety disorders?

We all feel anxious sometimes. It's natural. That alert, tense attentiveness is a survival tactic, after all, meant to keep us vigilant to the dangers around us. But for 12% of Canadians, anxiety becomes an everyday thing. Anxiety can become persistent and without purpose, with distressing physical and emotional symptoms that disrupt daily life.

Of all mental illnesses, anxiety disorders are the most common. They can be divided into 5 main types:

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
Living days marred by nearly-constant and exaggerated worries, people with generalized anxiety disorder just can't seem to shake that "bad" feeling. Money, relationships, health problems, career and job issues, what to wear, what will happen - you name it, when you have GAD almost anything can trigger excessive worrying and associated physical symptoms.

GAD can interfere with sleep and make it hard to ever just relax. Anxiety symptoms range from fatigue and irritability to headaches, muscles aches, nausea, and panic-like trembling and twitching. A diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder usually happens if a person has worried excessively more days than not for at least 6 months. Click here to learn more about generalized anxiety disorder.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Like people with GAD, people with OCD feel persistent, exaggerated anxiety. What sets OCD apart from more general anxiety is how people cope with it. In an attempt to control their obsessive anxious thoughts, those with OCD develop rituals, also called compulsions. Compulsions often develop in direct response to intrusive thoughts - for example, compulsive hand-washing may develop in response to recurrent thoughts about germs.

Touching objects, counting steps, and following careful sequences are all common compulsive patterns. Hoarding of personal objects is another compulsion thought to provide some sense of relief, albeit temporary, from anxiety and worry. Rather than being comforting or relieving, though, compulsions become distressing and deeply disruptive to a normal life. Click here to learn more about obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Panic disorder
Panic attacks are at the pounding, rapidly beating heart of panic disorder. Anyone can be gripped by sudden panic attack symptoms, including increased heart rate, dizziness or light-headedness, sweating, or shortness of breath. Other panic attack symptoms include a feeling of unreality or a fear of suddenly losing control or dying. A person with panic disorder has more frequent panic attacks that can happen at any time and without warning - or in particular anxiety-inducing situations.

The fear that a panic attack might occur can lead to avoidance of normal activities. Some people with panic disorder become afraid to leave their residence, a more extreme anxiety disorder called agoraphobia. Click here to learn more about panic disorder.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
This type of anxiety disorder will usually have a very specific origin or root cause - a traumatic event that is experienced or witnessed. The trauma often involves physical injury or the threat of physical harm, like a car crash, a rape or assault, a bombing, or a natural disaster like an earthquake or flood. After the trauma, anxiety may linger and emerge as PTSD symptoms.

The symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks in which a person relives the trauma; nightmares and impaired sleep; feelings of guilt, depression, or emotional numbness; or being easily startled or always on edge. Click here to learn more about post-traumatic stress disorder.

Social anxiety disorder
Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, stems from fears involving other people. People with social anxiety disorder are disproportionately self-conscious and may fear being watched, negatively judged, or publicly embarrassed in some way. A person with social anxiety may be focused on one particular social-based fear or worry, like eating in front of others, or they may be anxious in general about many different types of social interactions.

If a person with social phobia is faced with their anxiety triggers, the symptoms are similar to those of general anxiety - blushing, sweating, trembling, and nausea. People may also experience panic attacks, triggered exclusively by social situations. Worries about social situations can lead to avoidance of social situations and can make it difficult to even interact with co-workers, friends or classmates, leading to fewer relationships. Click here to learn more about social anxiety disorder.


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