What Is Anxiety?
What’s life without the occasional anxiety? You might feel anxious when a problem arises at work or when you get into an argument with a friend—that’s normal. But there’s a big difference between feeling anxious or worried from time to time and suffering with a serious anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are more than temporary worry or fear—they’re often severe and can interfere with daily life such as job performance, school, or relationships.
According to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders among adults. Statistics show that 28.8% of persons in the US will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. And in any given year, 18.1% of the US population will experience an anxiety disorder, while 4.1% will experience severe anxiety disorder symptoms. Furthermore, women are 60% more likely than men to experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.
What Anxiety Disorders Are There?
As previously mentioned, there are a multitude of anxiety disorders, as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). These include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Selective mutism
- Social anxiety disorder
- Specific phobia
- Panic disorder
- Substance/medication-induced anxiety disorder
- Anxiety disorder due to another medical condition
- Other specified anxiety disorder
- Unspecified anxiety disorder
These specific disorders vary in symptoms and diagnostic criteria. However, generally speaking, a person with a diagnosable anxiety disorder experiences more intense symptoms than brief “normal” anxiety, such as excessive fear or dread. Anxiety disorders can, and often do, occur alongside other mental or physical illnesses. And some co-occurring problems—such as depression, addictions, chronic pain, autism-spectrum disorders, or substance abuse—have the potential to mask anxiety symptoms (or simultaneously exacerbate them). In some instances, like in the instance of substance abuse, the co-occurring problem will need to be treated before a person can respond effectively to treatment for their anxiety.
Causes of Anxiety
While anxiety disorders sometimes run in families, no one knows for sure what causes an anxiety disorder. Indeed, the cause might be multifaceted, meaning that some anxiety disorders may emerge for a few reasons. They may occur due to…
- One’s environment: for example, an individual might develop social anxiety due to a bad experience in a large crowd, for example.
- Genetics: whereas one’s genetically susceptible to anxiety.
Studies investigating biological factors have found that several parts of the human brain are involved in fear and anxiety. In addition, ongoing research regarding environmental factors continues to develop, offering further explanations for causes of anxiety. In fact, there is a sentiment among researchers that evolutionarily (or biologically) a human body is designed to live life at a much slower pace and with less stimulus change. The simple fact that our environments are so disparate from what we have experienced as a species for many thousands (or more) of years, could be the most effectual root cause of the significant discomfort and anxiety many people feel.
Diagnosis and Treatment
There is good news: anxiety disorders are treatable. Therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and certain medications (such as Xanax, Clonazepam, and antidepressants) prove to be especially helpful for anxiety. Patients often prefer benzodiazepines because they work quickly and provide almost instant relief; however, medical professionals may be leery of the possibility of dependency or addiction that can accompany benzodiazepine use. Additionally, while anxiety disorders are commonly treated with medication or psychotherapy, or both, an individual’s specific treatment will depend on his or her presentation, the patient’s preferences, and the expertise of the attending clinician.
While medication isn’t meant to cure anxiety disorders, they are very effective at reducing or temporarily eliminating anxiety symptoms. Choosing the right medication, dosage, and treatment plan should be based on your individual needs and medical situation, done under an expert’s care. You and your doctor might try several medicines before finding the one best suited to your particular needs. When selecting a medication, you and your doctor might discuss:
- Benefits of each medication
- Side effects of each medication
- Risks of side effects (including those based on your medical history)
- Interactions with other medicines, drugs, or supplements you’re taking
- Out-of-pocket costs
- Alternative medicines, vitamins, or supplements
- Dosage and length of prescription
Psychotherapy (or talk therapy) involves talking with a trained clinician, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or licensed professional counselor, to understand what caused your anxiety disorder and how to manage or even eliminate it. A popular and effective form is called cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT: an empirically-based method that can be useful in treating a number of mental health issues including mood disorders (such as anxiety disorders).
CBT’s aim is to help the patient change thinking patterns that produce negative emotions (such as anxiety), and thereby change the way a patient reacts to anxiety-provoking situations. For example, CBT can help a person with panic disorder learn that his or her panic attacks are not heart attacks (a common misconception), or help a person with social phobia learn how to change the false belief that others are always watching and judging him or her. Furthermore, CBT can include exposure-based treatment, which has been used to treat specific anxieties or phobias, whereas the patient gradually encounters the object or situation that is feared (such as a spider, snake, germs, or small space).
Recovery Doesn’t Happen Overnight
Response to treatments can vary, and recovery doesn’t always follow a linear path to healing. More often, persons will experience their recovery as cyclical—a “two steps forward, one step back” motion. One will feel better, then somewhat worse, then better, and so on. Unfortunately, when results are not immediate, or when regression occurs, sometimes people believe they have “failed” at treatment—or that the treatment didn’t work for them—when, in fact, the person simply needs more time in treatment for it to be effective. Also, sometimes a person must try different treatments (or a combination of treatments) before they find what will be effective for them.
Anxiety Treatment Quick Facts
- CBT may be conducted individually or with a group of people who have similar problems. Group therapy is particularly effective for social phobia, as the patient/client can encounter and confront some social issues in treatment.
- Talking with a trusted friend, or religious mentor/clergy member, can also provide support, though it’s not usually a sufficient alternative to professional care.
- Stress management techniques and meditation can help people with anxiety disorders learn to self soothe and may greatly enhance the effects of therapy.
- Regular exercise has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety levels.
- Sufficient sleep can help one to experience reduced anxiety. Often ignored, the impact of adequate sleep can be substantial.
- Caffeine, alcohol, and certain illicit drugs can provide temporary relief from anxiety; however, they’re generally considered to be unhelpful for the long-term anxiety management and may produce other negative outcomes. Some over-the-counter cold medications can also aggravate the symptoms of anxiety disorders.
- One’s family can be an important asset in the recovery of an anxiety disorder. Ideally, one’s family should be supportive, but not enable, their loved one’s symptoms.
Get Anxiety Help Today
If you’re struggling with an anxiety disorder, it’s important to know that there is treatment out there. A counselor or therapist at Thriveworks can help you manage your symptoms and better understand how to cope with your disorder—they have the skills and experience to assist you. Additionally, they truly care about your health and wellbeing. To book a session with a provider near you, click here. Or, to check out our online counseling opportunities, click here.