Anxiety, worry, and stress are all afflictions of life in the modern world. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 10 percent of the American population, or 24 million people, suffer from anxiety disorders.
Experiencing anxiety in and of itself does not constitute a disorder. In fact, anxiety is a necessary warning signal of a dangerous or difficult situation. Without anxiety, we would have no way of anticipating difficulties ahead and preparing for them.
Anxiety becomes a disorder when the symptoms become chronic and interfere with our daily lives and our ability to function. People suffering from chronic anxiety often report the following symptoms:
- Muscle tension
- Physical weakness
- Poor memory
- Sweaty hands
- Inability to relax
- Constant worry
- Shortness of breath
- Upset stomach
- Poor concentration
These symptoms are severe and upsetting enough to make individuals feel extremely uncomfortable, out of control and helpless.
Naomi is a bright, highly motivated young woman who works as an executive for a large investment firm and is doing quite well in her career. Although she is well-liked by both colleagues and superiors, Naomi has never told them that she suffers from terrible, unexplained anxieties.
Ever since she was a child, she remembers worrying about things. She would worry about her father getting home safely from work or her sister getting safely to school. She often had the feeling that something dreadful was about to happen.
In her adult years, in addition to her constant worry, Naomi has become increasingly aware of feeling depressed. There are days when, for no apparent reason, she feels extremely “blue,” without energy or ambition, and suffers from low self-esteem. All of this is puzzling, since she continues to be successful at work, just as she had been at school. However, try as she might, she cannot shake these feelings of being down and of continually worrying that something terrible would happen. It was after coming home extremely drunk one night, after being out with friends, that she decided to seek help; nothing was improving and she was aware of an increase in her alcohol use.
Large numbers of people, like Naomi, have their lives disrupted by the interference of unwelcome and unrealistic fears, phobias, and worries. Some individuals attempt to deal with their anxieties by turning to alcohol to gain relief. The result is that the symptoms are further aggravated. Others do everything they can to avoid situations that might cause an increase in symptoms. Whatever it is that people attempt to do to cope with their fears, it is usually unsuccessful because of their inability to stop feeling nervous. For these people, life can become increasingly narrow and restricted.
Things have not changed very much for Naomi since childhood except that her fears and worries have worsened. She feels most comfortable with her set routine and avoids travel, parties, and dining out for fear of introducing something new in her life to worry about. And yet, there are many nights when Naomi is unable to sleep, preoccupied with some problem at work, in her social life, or with her family. None of this has ever prevented her from carrying on with life in general, but it has made her life miserable.
When Naomi referred herself for psychotherapy, she was told that her situation was not unusual; in fact, she was suffering from a common malady called “generalized anxiety disorder” or GAD. She was also told that depression often accompanies this disorder.
The chronic worry that accompanies GAD is impossible for the sufferer to control. The irony is that these worries and fears are not completely unrealistic. There is always the possibility in life that something terrible might, indeed, happen. However, the sufferer feels and thinks as though the fears and worries are well-founded and highly likely to occur. Whether a danger is imminent, remote, or completely unlikely makes no difference to someone with GAD. Not surprisingly, it is often the case that anxiety disorders run in families.
Naomi’s family consists of extremely high-strung and nervous people. Her mother has always been extremely prone to worrying about everyone. Her father was quick to become overwhelmed with feelings of dread for every new situation faced by his daughters while they were growing up. In fact, both parents tried to restrict Naomi’s social life so that she would stay close to home. They discouraged her from going away to college and hoped that she would remain with them until she married.
Naomi’s father also suffered from a combination of anxiety and depression and was often irritable and quick to anger. There was a lot of quarrelling when Naomi was a child. The combination of overprotectiveness on the part of her parents and their constant conflict and bickering left this young woman with a sense of low self-esteem and little self-confidence and served to worsen her anxieties.
Finding Help for Anxiety Disorders
Whether anxiety takes the form of GAD or another type of disorder, help is available—both self-help techniques and a variety of professional approaches may be used to alleviate anxiety.
In terms of self-help, many books are available on meditation and deep relaxation. Individuals can learn these techniques and put them into practice to reduce general tension levels in daily life. Such a reduction in tension reduces the degree to which anxiety disorders can interfere with daily activities.
One excellent book on meditation and relaxation is John Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (Hyperion, 1995). In it, Zinn discusses the importance of each of us being aware of our bodies and stress levels so that we get more in touch with our inner selves and needs. The need to reduce stress levels and intense anxiety is now a major health issue in our country, since the connection between stress and physical illness has been well documented.
Psychotherapists have a variety of approaches available to them to help patients reduce anxieties and improve the quality of their lives, including medication. Prozac and other similar medications reduce depression as well as levels of anxiety. The important news about drugs in this class is that they are not addictive.
Psychotherapists also utilize a variety of cognitive-behavioral techniques to target specific symptoms and behaviors to help people learn how to cope better with the situations that give rise to these disorders. Research shows that these methods are as successful as medications for reducing anxiety. Some psychotherapists combine medication with cognitive-behavioral therapy or traditional talk therapies; combination approaches are also effective in reducing the symptoms of these disorders.
Although we believe that we live in an anxious time, people through the ages may have always experienced their time in history as anxious. The difference is that, today, we are fortunate to have effective treatments available to help people face the bugaboos of modern life.
Adapted, with permission, from Dr. Allan N. Schwartz’s Web site, located at: www.allanschwartz.com
Last reviewed: On 3 Oct 2005 By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.