Anxiety is a very normal mind/body reaction when we consciously or subconsciously perceive a threat. This reaction is also called the fight or flight response.
The fight or flight response is one of our body's most primal instincts. Many thousands of years ago, our ancestors relied on this response to get themselves out of immediate danger. For example, if they were out hunting but sensed a predator was near, the anxiety allowed them to make the split decision to either run away or fight the beast.
Fast forward to today, and the fight or flight response isn't as practical as it was for our primitive ancestors; however, it still functions as a messenger, letting us know when something isn't right and requires our attention.
The problem with chronic anxiety sufferers is that the fight or flight response activates even though there is no immediate threat to respond to, or it may activate in response to irrational fear.
If you suffer from anxiety, you're not alone; 40 million US adults reportedly experience anxiety symptoms each year, making anxiety disorders the most common mental illness in the US.
The Types of Anxiety-Related Disorders
Anxiety is just an umbrella term for many different disorders which are closely associated with anxiety. Here are some examples:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD, is diagnosed when the anxiety is chronic. It's either occurring daily or frequently enough to interfere with regular day-to-day functioning. For a GAD diagnosis to be made, the symptoms should be present for six months or longer.
Someone who has a panic disorder may experience sudden and overwhelming feelings of panic. The symptoms include a pounding heartbeat, sweating, dizziness, and a feeling of impending doom. A panic attack usually subsides within 20 minutes. People suffering from a panic disorder may experience these episodes frequently.
Social Anxiety Disorder
A social anxiety disorder creates fear of embarrassing yourself or being criticized in a public setting, such as at a party where there may be people you don't know well. Social anxiety may make it difficult to talk to people with ease, and being in large groups can feel overwhelming for people suffering from this type of anxiety.
Phobia Related Disorders
Phobia disorders are linked to specific, irrational fears which may cause overwhelming anxiety and distress. Some common phobia examples include:
Agoraphobia: the fear of having a panic attack or something bad happening outside the home.
Claustrophobia: the fear of tight spaces
Aerophobia: The fear of flying
Arachnophobia: The fear of spiders
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may also be accompanied by anxiety.
What Are the Symptoms of Anxiety?
The symptoms of anxiety can vary from somewhat bothersome to extremely severe and debilitating.
Here are some of the commonly reported symptoms:
- An increased heart rate
- Restlessness and agitation
- Excessive worrying: Playing out possible worst-case scenarios, your mind running loose with all the negative possibilities.
- Shortness of breath or irregular breathing
- Inability to focus
- Inability to fall asleep or stay asleep
- An upset stomach, including nausea that in some cases can lead to vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Rumination: You may playback the events of the day, over and over. For example, worrying about things you said or obsessing about what others thought of you when they saw you do the thing.
What Are the Causes of Anxiety?
Anxiety can occur for a few reasons. In some cases, it can be the side effect of other underlying issues, such as a hormonal imbalance or the side effect of medication. Anxiety can also be the result of too much stress in one or more areas of your life.
Most of us have experienced anxiety at one point or another in our lives, and in small doses, it can even be good for us. It can put you in an alert state, allowing you to confront uncomfortable or dangerous situations head-on.
You may have occasionally felt it when you were about to give a presentation in front of your boss and higher-ups, or you may experience it when a significant change is about to occur in your life, like moving to a new city. The feeling is unpleasant yet passes as you get more comfortable with a task or new aspect of your life.
However, for someone with an anxiety disorder like GAD, the symptoms can come on for no apparent reason, feel debilitating, and last much longer.
Diagnosing a Generalized Anxiety Disorder
The most significant symptom a mental health professional will look out for is excessive worrying. Someone suffering from an anxiety disorder may worry about many different topics and areas of their life such as work, health, financial matters, romantic relationships, and other typical everyday circumstances.
Other criteria needed to determine a GAD diagnosis include:
- The worrying is constant, feels hard to control, and often shifts quickly from topic to topic.
- Feelings of excessive worry have been ongoing for six months or longer.
- Other medical conditions and disorders have been ruled out.
- The cause of symptoms is unrelated to substance use such as medications, recreational drugs, or alcohol.
- At least three of the symptoms below are present:
- Restlessness and feeling on edge
- Inability to concentrate or focus
- Feeling tired and fatigued, more than usual
- Difficulty sleeping
- Muscle soreness or aches
Treatment Options for Anxiety
General Anxiety Disorder is usually treated and managed through therapy, although, in more severe cases, medication may be helpful to supplement therapy.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most common approach for treating and managing anxiety. This type of therapy aims to change your limiting beliefs and behaviors so that you can work to reconcile past traumas and change harmful thought patterns you've picked up over time.
Benzodiazepines may be prescribed to help lessen the symptoms related to your anxiety response. These medications have a sedating effect on the body and calm the fight or flight response within minutes.
Antidepressants may also be used since they're considered an effective way to treat anxiety symptoms, along with those of depression. These must be taken daily and take a few weeks to take effect fully. It's not uncommon for chronic anxiety sufferers to also experience depression from time to time.
How We Can Help
If you feel it's time to get help with managing your anxiety, National Mental Health can help. We've made virtual psychiatry a priority in the services we offer, so you can see a psychiatrist online at a time that works best for you, all from the comfort of your home. Our virtual psychiatrists are fully licensed and trained to provide virtual psychotherapy and prescribe any medications that your virtual counselor may recommend for your treatment.
For more information on how we can help you get back to feeling strong and in control of your life, please get in touch!