What anxiety disorders have in common
“They all involve irrational, seemingly uncontrollable and frightening thoughts, which often results in avoidance behavior. And in all cases, the person with the disorder is fully aware that their behavior is irrational,” says Ross. “This differentiates this group of illnesses from psychotic illnesses. What’s more, in most cases the disorder impairs the person’s normal functioning.”
Ross says she isn’t convinced that anxiety cases are on the rise. “But we have become better at diagnosing them, and people are more forthcoming about reporting them,” she says.
Although the different anxiety disorders are considered to be a family of related conditions, we know much more about some of them than about others. GAD is the newest of the group in terms of our understanding. Before it was identified, people would be dismissed in a condescending way as the “worried well.”
“A recent study by the World Health Organization suggests that the odds of developing an anxiety disorder have doubled in the last 40 years.”
PTSD: Recurring Panic and Flashbacks
By contrast, post-traumatic stress disorder was identified at the start of the last century. Back then it was called shell shock or battle fatigue and was used to describe the mental health problems of servicemen who were traumatized in World War I.
For many people with PTSD, just thinking about the original cause of trauma is enough to bring on a panic attack. In fact, the chief problem with post-traumatic stress disorder is that its sufferers repeatedly relive their trauma through nightmares, flashbacks and visceral memories. They may also experience insomnia, depression and extreme irritability. Some people even become violent.
A recent study by the World Health Organization suggests that the odds of developing an anxiety disorder have doubled in the last 40 years. Harvard Medical School’s Ronald Kessler, who coauthored the study, explains, “A lot of it has to do with the world we live in. It’s a scary place. People are moving to strange cities, taking jobs in new industries; there’s a lot of uncertainty about the future. And things like mugging, murders, car accidents and terrorism are on the rise.”
For most people, worrying is not pathological. And feeling anxious or fearful is a normal response to stressful or threatening situations. You need to be alert when taking an exam, meeting performance targets at work, negotiating difficult traffic or fleeing from an attacker—it’s part of the body’s “fight or flight” reflex.
With anxiety disorders, though, the body sends out regular false alarms, driving people into paroxysms of fear and palpitating panic attacks. In other words, the body primes itself to meet a threat when no threat exists.
According to the ADAA, between 3 million and 6 million people in America suffer panic attacks. Without any provocation at all, they feel the same emotional and physical sensations they would if their lives were in jeopardy. The attacks seem to materialize out of thin air, and the symptoms are alarming in the extreme, ranging from a racing heartbeat, chest pains, dizziness and nausea to difficulty breathing, tingling or numbness and irrational fearfulness.
Not everyone who suffers a panic attack develops a panic disorder; some people never have a second attack. But those who suspect they have a disorder should seek treatment, because it can become extremely disabling if left untreated. Panic disorders can compound existing problems, such as depression or alcoholism, and spawn phobias.
In severe cases, people can end up avoiding social contact and shunning everyday activities like driving and shopping, even leaving the house. When people’s lives become so restricted, the condition is called agoraphobia (Greek for “fear of the market”). Clinical research suggests that early treatment of panic disorder can often stop it from progressing to agoraphobia.