Anxiety Disorders: A Detailed Guide

Alexander Draghici
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Anxiety disorders are a group of mental disorders characterized by excessive worry and fear. Today, anxiety disorders make up some of the most common mental health problems, affecting 264 million people worldwide.

From restlessness, intense fear, and muscle tension to intrusive thoughts, avoidance, and inability to make decisions, anxiety can have a profound impact on your mental health and well-being.

But anxiety isn’t a problem in itself.

In fact, anxiety has been (and continues to be) a valuable mechanism that has allowed our species to survive and thrive in a hostile and unpredictable environment.

It is because of anxiety that you look over your shoulder when walking down a dark alley. Anxiety is also what makes you skeptical when presented with a business opportunity that sounds too good to be true.

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Anxiety becomes problematic when you isolate yourself from society, fabricate intricate excuses to avoid uncomfortable situations, struggle with academics, or suffer from low job performance.

The best way to determine if you are dealing with a problematic form of anxiety is to consult a mental health professional.

Major Types if Anxiety Disorders

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder (or GAD) is the most common and widespread form of anxiety, affecting tens of millions of people worldwide.

People with generalized anxiety experience an almost permanent state of tension and restlessness. These symptoms manifest in a wide array of different life circumstances, hence the term “generalized.”

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

In essence, people who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder exhibit unwanted intrusive thoughts (obsessions), which they try to control by engaging in ritualistic behaviors (compulsions).

Paradoxically, the compulsive behaviors that are meant to ease the anxiety generated by obsessions end up taking control of the person who is dealing with this condition. In short, it is a never-ending cycle of obsessions, followed by compulsions, followed by obsessions, and so on.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD) occurs as the result of a severe traumatic event that shakes a person to the core.

People who have suffered, or even witnessed, physical or emotional trauma can experience intrusive images related to that event (flashbacks), nightmares and night terrors, and even suicidal ideation.

To deal with these unpleasant symptoms, people with PTSD often resort to avoidance, social isolation, and substance abuse.

Social Anxiety

As the name suggests, social anxiety occurs in various social contexts where the person feels others might evaluate or criticize them. Some examples of situations that people with social anxiety tend to avoid are dates, job interviews, public presentations, and networking events.

In some severe cases, the mere thought of asking for directions, holding a casual conversation, or giving a speech in front of an audience is enough to trigger restlessness and intense panic.

Specific Phobia

Specific phobia is an exaggerated and irrational fear of a particular object or circumstance. In many cases, the object of fear is something that represented a threat to the human species. Some common specific fears include narrow and enclosed spaces (claustrophobia), spiders (arachnophobia), heights (acrophobia), blood or needles, and water.

If the object of fear is easy to avoid and does not affect their quality of life, people with a specific phobia may never seek specialized help. However, there are situations when merely thinking or talking about the object of fear is enough to trigger a panic attack.

Panic Disorder (With or Without Agoraphobia)

The primary element in a panic disorder is the panic attack, which occurs unexpectedly and is usually followed by the fear of having another one. After a few episodes of intense panic, people with this condition begin to worry about the health implications of panic attacks.

At their core, people with panic disorder are afraid they will die or lose their sanity. These constant preoccupations cause intense worrying, ruminative thoughts, insomnia, and exhaustion, thus creating a fertile ground for more panic attacks.

Separation Anxiety

When one feels excessive fear or anxiety from separating from those they are closest to, it may be sign of separation anxiety. This can effect children as well as adults and interferes with normal functioning.

Common Symptoms

Although each type of anxiety disorder comes with a specific set of symptoms and challenges, several common signs characterize every form of anxiety:

  • Headaches and migraines
  • Nausea and vertigo
  • Accelerated breathing and heart rate
  • Blushing and trembling
  • Dry mouth
  • Tingling or numbness sensations in the hands or feet
  • Muscle tension
  • Inability to relax
  • Episodes of intense panic
  • Irrational fears
  • Constant worrying
  • Sleep problems

Not only do these symptoms contribute to overall poor quality of life, but recent studies indicate that anxiety disorders are linked to physical health problems.

Causes

As in the case of any other mental health problem, anxiety disorders are the result of genetic and environmental factors which, taken together, may explain why some people are more prone to focus on the potentially threatening side of a situation compared to others.

Genetic predispositions

For decades, psychologists have viewed anxiety as an acquired behavior. However, recent studies indicate that anxiety disorders are, in part, genetically inherited.

Although results are still relatively inconclusive, some researchers speculate that heritability may explain about 30 to 50% of a person’s anxiety disorder.

But just because you are genetically prone to anxiety disorders does not mean you are powerless. Recent advancements in mental health have allowed professionals to develop different strategies for both treatment and prevention.

Environmental factors

“Environmental factors” is a relatively broad term that includes a wide range of circumstances or situations that may trigger the onset of anxiety disorders.

We are talking about events over which you may or may not have control.

Some examples include traumatic events (civil unrest, war, poverty, natural disasters), abuse (physical, sexual, and emotional), dysfunctional parenting styles, health issues, and socio-economic instability.

Unlike genetics, environmental factors are somewhat easier to manage as some triggering situations can be avoided. If not, the only solution is to find a strategy that allows you to accept the uncontrollable and develop alternative coping strategies.

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Treatment 

Medication

For severe forms of anxiety, psychiatric medication is a viable treatment course as it alleviates symptoms and paves the way for other interventions such as psychotherapy.

Three of the most common classes of drugs used by psychiatrists to treat anxiety disorders are antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and anxiolytics.

Given that psychiatric drugs can have unpleasant side effects and are somewhat addictive, only a licensed medical professional can prescribe them. Furthermore, some experts believe that the patient should ultimately decide if they choose medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two.

Long story short, medication might not be the perfect cure, but it is definitely among the most effective ones we have so far.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy helps you address the cognitive and emotional side of mood disorders. With the help of a trained professional, you can gain a better understanding of your emotional struggles and develop healthy coping strategies that allow you to manage anxiety without resorting to avoidance, rationalization, and other self-defeating strategies.

While there is still plenty of room for improvement, psychotherapy (especially CBT and other brief therapies) proves to be an effective strategy for anxiety and related disorders.

If you think that you or someone close to you might be dealing with a form of anxiety, contact your primary care physician or talk to a mental health professional who can evaluate your condition, establish a diagnosis, and devise a personalized treatment plan.

Although anxiety can be extremely unpleasant and debilitating, keep in mind that it’s also one of the most treatable, manageable, and preventable mood disorders.