Most people experience feelings of anxiety before an important event such as a big exam, business presentation, or first date. These are normal feelings of anxiety that nearly everyone experiences from time to time in their lives.
Anxiety disorders, however, are conditions that fill a person’s life with overwhelming anxiety and fear. This fear is chronic, unremitting, and can grow progressively worse. Tormented by panic attacks, obsessive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares, or countless frightening physical symptoms, some people with anxiety disorders even become housebound.
How Common Are Anxiety Disorders?
People with anxiety disorders are 3 to 5 times more likely to visit their doctor than those who don’t have such disorders.
- Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in America: more than 40 million American adults and 10 million teenagers and children are affected by these concerns each year (or about 18 percent of the population).
- Anxiety disorders cost the U.S. somewhere between $42 and 46 billion in lost productivity and time out of work — nearly one-third of the nation’s total mental health bill of $148 billion.
- Two-thirds of people with anxiety disorders do not receive treatment for them (only 1 in 5 teens do).
- Women are twice as likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder than men.
- Anxiety can cause or make worse a physical disease or illness.
What Are the Different Kinds of Anxiety Disorders?
- Panic Disorder
Repeated episodes of intense fear that strike often and without warning. Physical symptoms include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, abdominal distress, feelings of unreality, and fear of dying.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
Repeated, unwanted thoughts or compulsive behaviors that seem impossible to stop or control.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Persistent symptoms that occur after experiencing a traumatic event such as rape or other criminal assault, war, child abuse, natural disasters, or crashes. Nightmares, flashbacks, numbing of emotions, depression, and feeling angry, irritable or distracted and being easily startled are common.
Two major types of phobias are social phobia and specific phobia. People with social phobia have an overwhelming and disabling fear of scrutiny, embarrassment, or humiliation in social situations, which leads to avoidance of many potentially pleasurable and meaningful activities. People with specific phobia experience extreme, disabling, and irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger; the fear leads to avoidance of objects or situations and can cause people to limit their lives unnecessarily.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Constant, exaggerated worrisome thoughts and tension about everyday routine life events and activities, lasting at least six months. Almost always anticipating the worst even though there is little reason to expect it; accompanied by physical symptoms, such as fatigue, trembling, muscle tension, headache, or nausea.
What Are Effective Treatments for Anxiety Disorders?
Effective treatments are readily available for people who experience one of the above anxiety disorder. They help many people with anxiety disorders and often combine medication and specific types of psychotherapy.
More medications are available than ever before to effectively treat anxiety disorders. These include groups of drugs called antidepressants and benzodiazepines. If one medication is not effective, others can be tried. New medications are currently under development to treat anxiety symptoms. The most common classes of medications used to combat anxiety disorders are antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and beta-blockers. Benzodiazepines are first-line treatments for generalized anxiety disorder. With panic disorder or social phobia (social anxiety disorder), benzodiazepines are usually second-line treatments, behind antidepressants.
A clinically-proven effective form of psychotherapy used to treat anxiety disorders is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This kind of therapy focuses on changing specific actions and uses several techniques to stop unwanted behaviors. In addition to these therapy techniques, cognitive-behavioral therapy teaches patients to understand and change their thinking patterns so they can react differently to the situations that cause them anxiety.
According to the NIMH, other forms of treatment may also be helpful for a person suffering from an anxiety disorder.
Some people with anxiety disorders might benefit from joining a self-help or support group and sharing their problems and achievements with others. Internet chat rooms might also be useful, but any advice received over the Internet should be used with caution, as Internet acquaintances have usually never seen each other and false identities are common. Talking with a trusted friend or member of the clergy can also provide support, but it is not necessarily a sufficient alternative to care from an expert clinician.
Stress management techniques and meditation can help people with anxiety disorders calm themselves and may enhance the effects of therapy. While there is evidence that aerobic exercise has a calming effect, the quality of the studies is not strong enough to support its use as treatment. Since caffeine, certain illicit drugs, and even some over-the-counter cold medications can aggravate the symptoms of anxiety disorders, avoiding them should be considered. Check with your physician or pharmacist before taking any additional medications.
The family can be important in the recovery of a person with an anxiety disorder. Ideally, the family should be supportive but not help perpetuate their loved one’s symptoms.
Do Anxiety Disorders Co-Exist with Other Physical or Mental Disorders?
It is common for an anxiety disorder to accompany depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, or another anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders can also co-exist with physical disorders. In such instances, the accompanying disorders will also need to be treated. Before beginning any treatment, however, it is important to have a thorough medical examination to rule out other possible causes of symptoms.