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What is anxiety?

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What is anxiety?

All of us feel some anxiety from stress, such as nervousness or butterflies before a date or job interview; apprehension before getting on an airplane; or worries about money or your kids.

This anxiety is a normal part of daily life and the “fight or flight” response to stress. It can even motivate us do our best or solve problems and make changes in our lives. For many people, however, anxiety and panic attacks start interfering with daily life and activities. When this happens, it’s worth getting help. Anxiety disorders are common and treatable, and don’t have to control your life.

What are anxiety disorders?

Anxiety disorders may be diagnosed if you have a level of anxiety that persists for months and interferes with daily life. Anxiety disorders are very common. About 40 million American adults will experience an anxiety disorder in a year.

The six types of anxiety disorders:

  • General anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Specific phobias
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder

Anxiety disorders can affect both adults and children. Adults who are experiencing symptoms of anxiety disorders recognize that their fears are extreme and not always rational. Children, however, may not be able to recognize that their fears are irrational, which can make the fears seem all the more scary.

Anxiety disorders often occur with other conditions, such as depression or substance abuse, which can mask symptoms or make them worse. There are effective treatments available for anxiety disorders, and a healthcare provider can help you choose the treatment that’s best for you, and address any other conditions that may be present.

Mental health researchers are not sure of the exact cause of anxiety disorders, but they do know that they are real conditions. They do not occur because of upbringing, personality, or character. Researchers are finding that anxiety disorders are caused by a combination of factors, including environmental factors, chemical imbalances in the brain, genetics, unhelpful patterns of thinking, and learning. A traumatic event or chronic stress may trigger anxiety, but is unlikely in itself to be the cause of the disorder.

Signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders

The signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders are familiar to all of us; most of them are part of the normal reaction to stress. If these symptoms are extreme in their intensity, last for months, and are chronic or more severe than the situation would seem to call for, it may mean the presence of an anxiety disorder.

Emotional and physical symptoms common to all anxiety disorders:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Trembling
  • Dizziness
  • Restlessness or feeling tense or jumpy
  • Fatigue or physical weakness
  • Irritability and crankiness
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Sleep difficulties (unable to fall or stay asleep)
  • Poor memory or concentration; feeling like your mind’s gone blank
  • Sweaty hands
  • Constant worry
  • Upset stomach or nausea
  • Nightmares
  • Dry mouth
  • Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
  • Feelings of apprehension or dread and anticipating the worst

In addition to these general signs and symptoms, many people with anxiety disorders experience panic attacks. Panic attacks are sudden and brief periods of intense fear and discomfort.

Symptoms of a panic attack may include:

  • Surge of overwhelming panic
  • Pounding heart or chest pain
  • Sweating
  • Trembling and shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath, smothering, or choking
  • Hyperventilating
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded or faint
  • A sense of unreality or being detached from oneself
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of immediate death
  • Numbness, tingling, chills, or hot flashes

Another common result of anxiety disorders is agoraphobia. People with agoraphobia avoid places or situations where it would be hard or embarrassing for them to leave if a panic attack happens.

Avoiding situations and triggers that cause anxiety and fear is common across all of the anxiety disorders.

Treating anxiety disorders

There are effective treatments for anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders can be complicated. The right treatment plan will depend on many factors, including which anxiety disorder you have, how you respond to medication and other therapies, how much stress you’re under, and your personal history. By working with a healthcare professional, you can find the treatment plan that’s right for you.

Cognitive behavioral therapy
In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a therapist helps you examine and change the way you think and feel about anxiety and the stress that produces it. CBT also helps you develop skills to change the way you respond to your fears and anxiety when they arise.

Cognitive therapy focuses on thoughts and how they are related to the anxiety you feel. A therapist helps you become aware of your thought patterns and change them to reduce anxiety. Behavioral therapy helps you learn to replace your anxious responses with more positive behaviors. For instance, you might use relaxation techniques like deep breathing.

Exposure therapy
Exposure therapy is a cognitive behavioral therapy that has proven helpful for anxiety disorders. In exposure therapy, a therapist helps you safely approach your fears. You might do this indirectly, by retelling or writing your memories and fears. Or, in what is called “in vivo” exposure, a therapist might work with you to directly approach your fears in a slow and controlled way. For example, a therapist might work with someone with a fear of flying to approach their fears and eventually go on a flight.

In exposure therapy, your fears lose their emotional “punch” and you learn that you can handle your anxiety responses. The anxieties can lose their intensity and power to disrupt your life as your symptoms lessen.

There are several options for medication if you are experiencing an anxiety disorder. These medications usually fall into one of three categories: antidepressants, antianxiety drugs, and beta-blockers. Antianxiety medications, while effective, tend to be a short-term rather than a long-term solution for handling your anxiety. More common medications for treating anxiety are the antidepressants. These include the drugs that are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). The response to medications depends on the individual; what works well for one person may not work well for someone else. It’s important to work closely with your healthcare provider to find the right medication and dosage for you.

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