Next month Amy turns 49, but it’s unlikely to be a happy birthday. Five years ago she had what she terms a breakdown — it was later diagnosed as generalized anxiety disorder — and life has never been the same since.
“At the time I had many worries and was trying to be superwoman like so many other moms,” says Ann. “I worried about my son in the Navy, my daughter who was having health problems and my mother who was finding it increasingly hard to care for my mentally retarded brother. My husband and I had drifted apart and had little in common.
“I was also unknowingly into menopause, and I was doing the career thing, trying to get a national organization of teachers started.”
Once tipped over the edge, Ann began to suffer a legion of symptoms, from panic attacks and insomnia to ringing in her ears, nausea and trembling. She’s tried a string of drugs, to little avail, and is no longer able to work.
She describes a typical night: “I would pace, cry, pray, cry, pace, pace, pace. I would beg God to help me, but it goes on and on. My startle reflex would go into overdrive—I would jump at the sound of a pin falling.
“You do not eat. You cannot think or concentrate; your whole body screams for relief. It feels like torture…. You get suicidal thoughts. You feel as if you are dragging everyone you love down with you, and your muscles cramp up so tight you cannot move.”
Anxiety disorders — of which generalized anxiety disorder is just one type — are America’s No. 1 mental health problem, affecting almost 19 million people between the ages of 9 and 54 and costing the nation more than $42 billion in doctors’ bills and workplace losses—almost one-third of its total mental health bill. What’s more, many therapists believe that these disorders are on the rise.
There are several different kinds of anxiety disorders:
- Panic disorder—Characterized by panic attacks, sudden feelings of terror that strike repeatedly and without warning.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—Persistent symptoms that occur after experiencing a traumatic event, such as war, rape, child abuse, a natural disaster or being taken hostage. Nightmares, flashbacks, numbing of emotions, depression and irritability are common.
Social phobia—Extreme, disabling and irrational fear of something that really poses little or no actual danger. The fear leads to avoidance of situations and can cause people to limit their lives.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)—Chronic, exaggerated worry about everyday routine life events and activities; perpetual anticipation of disaster accompanied by physical symptoms, such as fatigue, trembling, muscle tension, headache or nausea.
Jerilyn Ross, president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA), explains why these very different disorders are grouped together under one heading.