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Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety is a feeling characterized by an inner state of uneasiness and tumult. Although these feelings are common in stressful situations, such as just before taking a test or facing a difficult conversation with a friend, experiencing these feelings on a regular basis, in addition to overwhelming feelings of dread, fear, worry, restlessness, and excessive rumination, can be a symptom of an anxiety disorder.  

With anxiety disorders, one might experience an inordinate amount of anxiety as a response to an otherwise benign inconvenience or stressor. This can cause a number of affects. When anxious, our bodies release cortisol as well as adrenaline. These hormones affect people physically and emotionally. Muscle tension, teeth grinding, fatigue, problems concentrating, rapid heart beat, excessive worry, and even outright panic are all common reactions. Adrenaline is most commonly associated with the fight or flight response. In this way, anxiety can be useful. It is what gives us the energy and alertness to respond to dangerous situations.  

Anxiety vs. Fear

Although similar emotions, fear and anxiety have some key differences. Fear is short-lived, focused in the present, and occurs because of a specific threat. On the other hand, anxiety is continuous, future-focused, and defined by a more diffuse, sometimes unidentifiable threat. Anxiety promotes excessive caution when approaching a potential threat and hampers constructive coping mechanisms. An individual might develop unhelpful coping mechanisms that work in the immediate term, but harm them in the long term.

Anxiety Physical Effects

The problem with anxious thoughts begins when they cannot be put aside after stressful or dangerous situations. Experiencing dread without cause is a clear sign of anxiety. Uncontrollable anxiety can be especially frightening. Individuals may even experience physical chest pains and shortness of breath, mimicking the signs of having a heart attack. These kinds of panic attacks may be physically benign, but they can have a detrimental effect on an individual’s day to day life. Uncontrolled anxiety can be debilitating and extremely exhausting, often requiring an individual to spend several hours recuperating.

Forms of Anxiety

Anxiety comes in many forms, some of which are tied to social situations. Stage fright, or freezing while speaking in front of crowds or audiences, is a common form of anxiety. Social anxiety, or the dread of engaging in social events or gatherings, is another. Sometimes, however, anxiety becomes an ongoing part of one’s life, indicating an anxiety disorder. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), characterized by obsessive and repetitive behaviors, is one example of an anxiety disorder. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), or a period of six or more months of excessive worry, is the most common.

About Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are in part genetic, but they can also stem from other mental disorders and external triggers. Illegal drug use, alcohol use, and even more benign drugs such as caffeine can exacerbate or even trigger anxiety or panic. Anxiety disorders can also occur as a result of other conditions, such as bipolar disorder, anorexia and bulimia, major depressive disorder, and some personality disorders.

Psychological Effects of Anxiety

The physiological symptoms of anxiety can be overwhelming. The “fight or flight” basis for anxiety in our body chemistry and hormones means that it can affects many of our internal symptoms when overactive. Neurologically, anxiety can present as headaches, vertigo, and lightheadedness. Digestive difficulties are also likely, including stomach pain, nausea, and diarrhea. Shortness of breath, heart palpitations, tachycardia, and unexplained chest pain are also common. These pains often feel as real as a genuine heart attack, which can add stress and anxiety.

Who Experiences Anxiety  

More women report experiencing anxiety than men, although social anxiety is on the rise among both genders. With the advent of cell phone addiction and migration to cities, people are becoming increasingly fearful or uncomfortable in social situations. Some people experience more anxiety when interacting with unfamiliar others. Others experience apprehension when simply meeting up with friends in a public place, such as a bar or restaurant. Social anxiety can happen when interacting with strangers and known individuals alike, making it a particularly difficult condition to live with on a regular basis.

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Anxiety Risk Factors

Many factors can trigger or exacerbate anxiety. Some, as mentioned, are genetic. A family history of mental illness and anxiety disorders can mean a greater likelihood of personally developing general anxiety. Certain personality traits, such as neuroticism, are also highly associated with anxiety. Therefore, neurotic behaviors or tendencies are a risk factor for developing anxiety. Physical factors, such as thyroid problems, can also play a role. And, of course, stressors in everyday life, from traffic to long lines at the grocery store, can lead to anxiety. Without healthy ways to cope with these situations, the short-term stress of getting cut-off on the highway can lead to long-term anxiety.

Coping with Anxiety

For those with anxiety it is important to develop a healthy lifestyle, relaxation techniques, and positive coping mechanisms. Talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation practice, and psychotherapy are all healthy ways of treating symptoms of anxiety. Talking through anxiety and triggers with a mental health professional can help those who suffer remain calm and patient in response in triggering scenarios. When therapy and lifestyle changes cannot alleviate the issues, and continues to cause difficulties in life, medications may be necessary. SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), antidepressants, and sedatives (commonly called anti-anxiety drugs) can all be useful. A psychiatrist can help decide what medications work best. Many people benefit from a combination of medication and therapy.

Anxiety has an extremely wide range of treatments in psychological settings. What works best for individuals varies greatly. Normally a combination of lifestyle changes, medication, and therapy can help an individual live a more stable, less fearful life.

Written By: Sprout Editorial Team

The Sprout Health Group editorial team is passionate about addiction treatment, recovery and mental health issues. Every article is expert-reviewed.