Everyone feels anxiety from time to time – it’s a normal reaction to stressful situations such as starting a new job, taking a big exam, or going out on a first date. Some anxiety can even be beneficial, allowing for increased focus and alertness and can help with problem solving abilities. People with anxiety disorders, however, find that their anxiety is far from helpful—in fact, it can be so harmful that it interferes with daily activities, hinders interpersonal relationships, and decreases productivity at work or in school. There are a number of types of anxiety disorders, each of which can lead to tremendous challenges, including:
Agoraphobia is characterized by avoidance of situations a person is afraid may lead to panic, most notably in public places in which crowds are present. Symptoms of agoraphobia may be so severe that an individual is fearful to leave his or her home.
Panic disorder is characterized by feelings of terror that strike repeatedly and without provocation or warning. Symptoms of panic disorder include physical sensations such as choking, chest pain, or heart palpitations.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops after exposure to a particularly traumatic event such as a natural disaster, sexual assault, or death of a loved one. Symptoms of PTSD include intrusive memories, flashbacks, deliberate avoidance of potentially triggering stimuli, and emotional numbness.
Social phobias or social anxiety disorder include intense, overwhelming preoccupations or self-consciousness about normal, everyday social situations. These anxieties are often centered on a fear of being judged by others or acting in a way that may cause mortification or shame.
Phobias or specific phobias are an intense fear about a specific object or situation, such as enclosed spaces, spiders, or flying. Specific phobias are generally inappropriate for the situation and lead to the avoidance of unremarkable situations.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is an anxiety disorder that leads to unfounded, disproportionate, and unrealistic worry or tension in absence of a stimuli. Often called “free floating anxiety,” people who have GAD may experience anxiety that occurs without provocation.
While anxiety disorders can be tremendously crippling, with proper therapeutic interventions and treatment, those with anxiety disorders can learn the skills needed to lead a happy, healthy, productive life.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders in the United States, affecting 40 million people (or 18% of the population) over the age of 18; however only about a third of those seek treatment for their anxiety. Women are 60% more likely than men to experience anxiety disorders at some point during their lifetime.
Causes and Risk Factors for Anxiety Disorders
Researchers believe that there is not a single cause for the development of anxiety disorders, rather anxiety is thought to be a complex interplay of environmental, genetic, and physical risk factors. The most commonly cited causes and risk factors for anxiety include:
Genetic: People who are born into families who have a history of anxiety disorders are at a greater risk for developing the disorder themselves. It’s important to note that not everyone who develops an anxiety disorder has a family history.
Physical: Researchers believe that certain areas of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and the fight-or-flight mechanism may be structurally or functionally different in those who have anxiety disorders. Additionally, unbalanced levels of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin or dopamine, may lead to the development of anxiety disorders.
Environmental: Dormant anxiety disorders may be triggered by periods of intense stress about health, finances, a death in the family, or other life events. Anxiety disorders may be triggered by a single environmental factor or a number of different factors occurring in rapid succession.
- History of childhood trauma
- Being female
- Certain personality types
- Drug or alcohol abuse
Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders
The specific symptoms experienced by those with anxiety disorders are vast and can vary wildly, making prompt treatment and diagnosis a challenge. Some may experience these symptoms as mild annoyances, while others experience the same symptoms and find them totally debilitating. The most common symptoms of anxiety disorders include the following:
- Feelings of panic
- Feelings of uneasiness
- Mood swings
- Inability to calm down
- Withdrawing from once-pleasurable past-times
- Withdrawing from friends and loved ones
- Difficulties concentrating
- Challenges fulfilling work or familial obligations
- Inability to be still
- Ritualistic behaviors such as hand-wringing
- Always on edge, looking for danger
- Feeling like mind has gone blank
- Feeling powerless
- Dry mouth
- Feeling weak
- Troubles with sleeping
- Muscle tension
- Frequent urination or diarrhea
- Stomach problems
- Tremors or twitches
- Shortness of breath
- Cold hands or feet
- Sweaty hands or feet
- Cardiac arrhythmias – heart palpitations
- Numbness in hands or feet
- Tingling in hands or feet
- Uncontrollable and obsessive thoughts
- Repeated flashbacks of trauma
- Feelings of dread
- Anticipating the worst
Effects of Anxiety Disorders
If left untreated, anxiety disorders can slowly damage every area of an individual’s life. Long-term consequences of anxiety disorders will vary based upon type of disorder, severity of symptoms, individual genetic makeup, and co-occurring disorders. The most common long-term effects of untreated anxiety disorders may include:
- Worsening depression
- Substance use and abuse
- Digestive or bowel problems
Many people who struggle with anxiety disorders are also struggling with comorbid disorders. The most common co-occurring disorders include:
- Depressive disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Eating disorders
- Sleep disorders
- Substance abuse
- Body dysmorphic disorder