What Is Anxiety Disorder?
Anxiety is a natural reaction to circumstances in which there is danger or stress. It can protect us from harm and is useful at times. However, an anxiety disorder is different than having feelings of anxiety from time to time. With an anxiety disorder, the feelings of anxiety don’t go away and can become worse over time. Anxiety disorders go beyond nervousness before a presentation at work or school or being worried about the outcome of a game or test. Anxiety disorders interfere with the person’s ability to function in daily life.
The American Psychiatric Association reports that 30% of Americans will have an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. These disorders will prompt the person to avoid situations that "trigger" their anxiety. These disorders can lead to missing work, school, and other responsibilities. When left untreated, the consequences and experiences of anxiety can get worse.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), there are four different types of anxiety disorders. These are:
1. Generalized Anxiety Disorder or GAD. With this type of anxiety disorder, there is constant worry about daily life. This excessive worry can stop the person from attending to basic tasks and responsibilities. They almost become ‘paralyzed’ with anxiety.
2. Panic Disorder. Panic disorder is characterized by sudden and repeated feelings of extreme terror that seemingly come out of nowhere. Panic attacks are part of having a panic disorder and can also be triggered by a place, situation, person, or event.
3. Social Anxiety Disorder. Social anxiety disorder is a type of anxiety disorder in which the person has an intense, often debilitating, fear of social events or performing in social situations. This can lead to missing many social events both in the workplace or school as well as in personal situations.
4. Phobia-Related Disorders. These are disorders where an individual has an intense fear or strong aversion to certain objects or situations. Types of phobia-related disorders include fear of flying, fear of heights, fear of a specific animal or insects like spiders, and more.
No matter which type of anxiety disorder a person has, there are effective ways to treat it and manage it and get back into life.
How Does Anxiety Affect the Body and Brain?
When the brain perceives a threat, it goes into fight or flight mode. While this can be helpful during times of real danger, with anxiety disorders, the brain goes into fight or flight mode too often and for too long.
Here's how it works. The sympathetic nervous system becomes activated, prompting several responses from the body. While the exact effects on the body vary from person to person—and the type of anxiety disorder also impacts the types of effects—here are some common ways that anxiety shows up in the body:
- Increased heart rate. When the brain perceives stress or danger the adrenal glands are activated producing the hormones adrenal and cortisol. Both of these speed up the heart rate.
- Stomach issues. Ongoing or acute anxiety can result in gastrointestinal issues (GI) such as nausea, vomiting, constipation, and diarrhea.
- Chronic exhaustion and fatigue. When the body operates in fight or flight mode on a regular basis, this "high alert" can cause severe exhaustion.
- Insomnia. From being unable to fall asleep and not staying asleep to waking up feeling tired, anxiety can create problems with sleep. This lack of sleep can, in turn, lead to other health problems.
- Shortness of breath or feeling like you can’t breathe. When in fight or flight mode, the body sends extra oxygen in order to get the body more blood. This can often have the reverse effect and lead to feelings of being unable to breathe.
- Tense and achy muscles. With anxiety, muscles can tense up in preparation for an emergency even though there really isn't one. In addition, the muscles being tense on a regular basis means they never get to relax resulting in ongoing stiffness and pain.
- Weakened immune system. When the body operates too often in a fight or flight mode, the body is overtaxed. As a result, other body systems can be compromised—especially the immune system. Having a weakened immune system can then result in other health problems.
What’s more, anxiety can have lasting impacts on the brain. According to research published by the National Library of Medicine, chronic anxiety and stress lead to detrimental changes in the structure and functioning of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. This has been shown to lead to the development of other mental health disorders, including depression and even dementia.
Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders
Each type of anxiety disorder has different signs and symptoms. However, there are overall symptoms that signal an anxiety disorder, such as:
- Fear or anxiety that is out of proportion to the situation
- Fear or anxiety that inhibits a person’s ability to function in daily life
While these two signs of anxiety disorders can be applied to the various types of anxiety disorders, there are some specific signs regarding specific types of anxiety disorders.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): Mental and Physical Symptoms and Signs
Characterized by ongoing worry and restlessness, GAD can also look like:
- Restlessness or being wound up
- Difficulty concentrating or focusing problems
- Trouble sleeping
- Muscle tension
Panic Disorder: Mental and Physical Signs and Symptoms
Panic disorders are most frequently characterized by panic attacks. The following are signs of a panic attack:
- Pounding heart or very fast heart rate
- Chest pain
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling out of control
- Feeling that something terrible is about to happen
Social Anxiety Disorder: Mental and Physical Signs and Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of a social anxiety disorder are much the same as for GAD but occur when faced with social situations. Specific symptoms can also include:
- Avoiding social interactions including discussions at work, school, or social settings
- Staying home and alone often
- Feeling anxious that others will notice you
- Excessive worry about being embarrassed
- Overly fearful of talking with others or strangers
Phobia-Related Disorder: Mental and Physical Signs and Symptoms
Phobia-related disorders are specific to a situation or object. Those affected generally experience anxiety, but in general look for the following signs and symptoms:
- Excessive or irrational worry about an object or situation
- Actively taking steps to avoid a certain object or situation
- Having immediate anxiety when in the situation or around the object
- Experiencing severe anxiety when in proximity to the object or in the situation
Consequences of Anxiety Disorders
The impact of anxiety can be severe both emotionally and physically. Physical symptoms might involve chest pain, or, worse, even heart attacks. Long-term anxiety can bring on many other health conditions as the stress caused by anxiety is hard on your body.
Severe anxiety can also interfere with people socially, negatively affecting their relationships with loved ones and family members, as well as harming their education and job prospects and their experience of daily activities. When left untreated, anxiety disorders can be debilitating. Stress management is vital to staying healthy, and whether one chooses self-help, mindfulness, medication like antidepressants, or psychiatry, it's important to get help.
Treatments for Anxiety Disorders
The first step in getting the right treatment for anxiety disorders is proper diagnosis. Anxiety disorders can mimic other issues such as heart disease and thyroid issues. Getting an evaluation from a trained and experienced health care professional is essential to any effective treatment plan.
Is There a Co-Occurring Disorder?
It’s also important to understand that many people with anxiety disorders self-medicate with alcohol or another substance. This can lead to the development of an alcohol use disorder (AUD) or substance use disorder (SUD). When this happens, it is referred to as having co-occurring disorders. An example would be having generalized anxiety disorder and AUD.
Once an individual's anxiety disorder is uncovered, including the type of anxiety disorder and whether or not there are any co-occurring disorders present, the next step is to create a treatment plan. Treatment for anxiety disorders is effective and can help the individual regain their lives and peace of mind.
Evidence-Based Treatment Options
In general, most anxiety disorders respond well to evidence-based psychotherapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). During this type of talk therapy, the individual learns new ways of thinking, reacting, and behaving in order to lessen anxiety symptoms.
There are also some types of medications that can be helpful in treating anxiety disorders. Medications use should be approached with care and only taken as prescribed. There is a danger of developing a dependence on certain types of medications commonly used to treat some anxiety disorders.
Alternative Health Options
In addition to therapy and medication, developing coping skills through alternative health approaches can help reduce and manage anxiety. Yoga, mediation, nature walks, and journaling can help the individual with an anxiety disorder become aware of triggers and lessen the symptoms when they are feeling anxious.
Again, it’s important to be aware of the high rate of self-medicating when it comes to anxiety disorders. If an individual has developed alcohol or substance dependence, it’s essential that this disorder be treated simultaneously for the best chance of recovery from both disorders. Treatment of anxiety may include a combination of different kinds of therapy, anti-anxiety medications, alternative health practices, support groups, and the like.
At Caron, we treat individuals with co-occurring disorders, so if you have a substance abuse or alcohol use disorder, plus an anxiety disorder like OCD, agoraphobia or general anxiety disorder related to a traumatic event, we have compassionate mental health professionals who can help devise a dual treatment plan tailored to you. We believe that recovery isn’t just possible, it’s probable. Learn moreonline or call us at 1-800-854-6023. We’re just one call away and we can help.