Learn About Anxiety
While some amount of anxiety is normal, for example when starting a new job or studying for a big exam, people who have anxiety disorders face an overwhelming amount of fears and worries that disrupt normal daily life. Anxiety disorders are a group of mental health disorders that cause some children, teens, adults, and older adults to feel very frightened, fearful, uneasy, and distressed in everyday situations which would not normally evoke an anxiety response. Untreated anxiety disorders can lead to extremely negative consequences that can impact a person’s entire daily life – they may not be able to work, go to school, or have normal social relationships. The most common anxiety disorders include:
Panic disorder involves feelings of intense terror that strike out of nowhere and occur repeatedly, without warning. People who have panic disorder may feel as though they’re suffocating, having a heart attack, and going crazy. In order to avoid these panic attacks, people with panic disorder may begin to avoid going out into crowds or places in which they do not feel safe.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that develops after a person is exposed to a traumatic, terrifying event – such as a natural disaster or sexual assault – that leads to flashbacks, avoidance of reminders of the event, and emotional numbness.
Social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, or social anxiety disorder involves overwhelming feelings of worry and self-consciousness about everyday social situations. These may include fears of being judged by others or that his or her actions may lead to ridicule, embarrassment, or negative judgment. People who have social phobia may have extreme dread and anxiety about activities of daily living such as going to school or work.
Specific phobias are severe fears of a specific situation or object like a fear of heights or a fear of spiders. The level of fear for people who have specific phobias are far stronger than those appropriate for the situation or object and may lead to an avoidance of everyday, common situations.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by extreme, unrealistic worries, tension, or dread often without a known stimulus. This worrying lasts at least six months, impairs the ability to concentrate, and makes living daily life challenging.
Fortunately, while anxiety disorders can lead to tremendous challenges in a person’s life, they are eminently treatable disorders. With proper care and therapies, children, teens, adults, and older adults who have anxiety disorders are able to lead productive, happy lives.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders in the United States. About 20% of the U.S. population is affected by anxiety disorders at any given time; meaning that 40 million adults in the U.S. experience preventable feelings of fearfulness, worry, and stress. Reports indicate that about 8% of teens between the ages of 13 to 18 have an anxiety disorder with symptoms commonly appearing around the age of 6.
Causes and Risk Factors for Anxiety
Researchers tend to agree that anxiety disorders are not the result of a single risk factor or cause; rather it is a combination of environmental, genetic, and physical risk factors working in tandem to cause the disorder. The most commonly cited causes and risk factors for anxiety disorders include:
Genetic: People who have a first-degree relative such as a parent or sibling with an anxiety disorder are at greater risk for developing one themselves. However, not all people diagnosed with anxiety disorders will have a family history, nor will all with a family history go on to develop an anxiety disorder.
Physical: Neuroimaging studies (such as MRIs and CT scans) of those who have anxiety disorders show that there are subtle differences in areas of the brain – notably the hippocampus and amygdala – of those with these disorders. Additionally, abnormal levels of certain neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin may be involved in the development of anxiety disorders.
Environmental: A number of significant life events and stressors that overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope may lead to the development of anxiety disorders.
- Being female
- Former or active military duty
- Chronic, unremitting stress
- Childhood history of abuse, trauma, or neglect
- Chronic physical health disorder
- Certain personality types
- Substance use and abuse
Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety
Symptoms and signs of anxiety disorders will vary depending upon specific disorder, frequency of symptoms, presence of co-occurring mental health disorders, and severity of the disorder. Most common signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders include:
- Restlessness and agitation
- Inability to sit still and remain calm
- Social withdrawal and isolation
- Inability to properly meet responsibilities at home, work, or school
- Exaggerated startle reflex
- Decreased ability to perform normal activities of daily life
- Usage of drugs or alcohol to self-medicate the symptoms
- Shortness of breath
- Fatigue and exhaustion
- Notable changes in patterns of eating or sleeping
- Excessive perspiration
- GI symptoms: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- Muscle tension and pain
- Frequent headaches
- Nightmares and night terrors
- Pounding heart
- Fine muscle tremors
- Cold or sweaty hands and/or feet
- Numbness or tingling in hands and/or feet
- Dry mouth
- Difficulties concentrating
- Anticipating the worst outcomes
- Mind often going blank
- Irrational fears and dread
- Uncontrollable, obsessive thoughts
- Feeling as though one is going crazy
- Feeling helpless
- Feelings of panic, fear, and uneasiness
- Mood swings
- Feeling worthless
- Hopelessness and despair
- Feeling in danger
- Feelings of dissociation
Effects of Anxiety
Left untreated, the effects of anxiety disorders will pervade every aspect of a person’s life. Long-term consequences of untreated anxiety disorders will fluctuate based upon individual genetic makeup, presence of co-occurring disorders, drug or alcohol abuse, and symptom severity. Long-term effects of anxiety disorders may include:
- Drug abuse and addiction
- Increasing symptom severity
- Total social isolation
- Development of additional mental health disorders
- Loneliness and self-loathing
- Increasing physical health problems
- Self-harming behaviors
- Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
Anxiety and Co-Occurring Disorders
Anxiety disorders often occur with a number of other types of mental health disorders. The most common co-occurring, comorbid disorders include:
- Depressive disorders
- Other anxiety disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Borderline personality disorder