Anxiety disorders are serious medical illnesses that affect approximately 19 million American adults. These disorders fill people's lives with overwhelming anxiety and fear. Unlike the relatively mild, brief anxiety caused by a stressful event such as a business presentation or a first date, anxiety disorders are chronic, relentless, and can grow progressively worse if not treated.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is more general and complex. It is felt in anticipation of danger, and is associated with the ability to predict, prepare for, and adapt to change. Often, it lasts a long time, and its cause remains ill-defined. For example, someone uneasy about public speaking may experience a tightness in the stomach for days before a scheduled talk.
As long as there's a good reason for fear or anxiety, and it doesn't interfere with the ability to work, play, and socialize, it is not considered a problem. But when anxiety takes on a life of its own and begins to disrupt everyday activities, the situation is no longer normal. A genuine emotional disorder is now at work... and it's time to see a doctor.
Thousands of scientific studies over the past several years show that high blood pressure, ulcers, migraine headaches, strokes, alcoholism, depression, anger, fatigue, drug addiction and many other medical conditions are often due to the long-term effects of stress.
Learning theory views anxiety as a learned behavior that can be unlearned. This theory posits that a person's anxiety can be reduced by persistently confronting the feared situation or object. And some people do, in fact, change their thinking and experience significant relief without any medication.
Psychoanalytic theory holds that anxiety stems from unconscious conflict arising from discomfort or distress during childhood. Once the source of the anxiety is identified, it can be eliminated by resolving the underlying conflict. However, most studies find that people with anxiety disorders come from stable homes, with childhood backgrounds similar to those of people without anxiety disorders.
Stress, trauma, uncertainty. Most theorists agree that, other factors aside, stress, trauma, and uncertainties can play a role in the development of anxiety disorders. Studies show a relationship between anxiety and stress, which can be defined as a consequence of adapting to a change. Challenges such as the death of a loved one require a major adaptation that can contribute to the development of an anxiety disorder. Uncertainty during transitions, or about the future, can also produce anxiety. Some studies have found that a stressful event precedes the appearance of many anxiety disorders, though this result is not yet conclusive. The influence of these factors appears to vary with the disorder. In post-traumatic stress syndrome, such factors play a major role, whereas in obsessive- compulsive disorder, brain chemistry appears to be the primary culprit.
Many organizations today supports research into the causes, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses. Studies examine the genetic and environmental risks for major anxiety disorders, their course--both alone and when they occur along with other diseases such as depression--and their treatment. The ultimate goal is to be able to cure, and perhaps even to prevent, anxiety disorders.
Other research focuses on the hippocampus, another brain structure that is responsible for processing threatening or traumatic stimuli. The hippocampus plays a key role in the brain by helping to encode information into memories. Studies have shown that the hippocampus appears to be smaller in people who have undergone severe stress because of child abuse or military combat. This reduced size could help explain why individuals with PTSD have flashbacks, deficits in explicit memory, and fragmented memory for details of the traumatic event.
By learning more about brain circuitry involved in fear and anxiety, scientists may be able to devise new and more specific treatments for anxiety disorders. For example, it someday may be possible to increase the influence of the thinking parts of the brain on the amygdala, thus placing the fear and anxiety response under conscious control.
Depressed people will seem sad, or "down," or may be unable to enjoy their normal activities. They may have no appetite and lose weight (although some people eat more and gain weight when depressed). They may sleep too much or too little, have difficulty going to sleep, sleep restlessly, or awaken very early in the morning. They may speak of feeling guilty, worthless, or hopeless; they may lack energy or be jumpy and agitated. They may think about killing themselves and may even make a suicide attempt. Some depressed people have delusions (false, fixed ideas) about poverty, sickness, or sinfulness that are related to their depression. Often feelings of depression are worse at a particular time of day, for instance, every morning or every evening.
Although anxiety disorders take several distinct forms, certain general symptoms tend to appear in all of them. When discussing their condition, people with anxiety disorders often report the following:
- cold/clammy hands
- dry mouth
- fast pulse
- lump in the throat
- muscle aches
- numbness/tingling of hands, feet, or other body part
- racing or pounding heart
- rapid breathing
- upset stomach
Symptoms of this disorder are often mild, and do not interfere with work or social situations. If symptoms are severe, however, they can disrupt daily activities. Because people with generalized anxiety disorder often have another physical or emotional disorder, such as depression, there has been much learned debate as to whether anxiety disorder exists on its own. But recent studies indicate that there really is such a disorder, and that it can be helped by diagnosis and treatment. The symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder usually begin in youth and may go untreated for decades. However, they tend to diminish with age. One study found that only 3 percent of cases of generalized anxiety disorder began in those 65 and over. The problem is more common among women than men and often runs in families.
Anxiety disorders are surprisingly frequent, and affect more Americans than does any other emotional disorder. They are more common than depression, manic depression, or abuse of alcohol and other substances. According to the American Psychiatric Association, while depressive disorders affect one person in 20, one in 12 suffers an anxiety disorder. Because consumers and doctors alike are less attuned to anxiety disorders than other emotional problems, these disorders often go unrecognized. This is unfortunate, because most cases of anxiety can be treated successfully. In fact, anxiety disorders are considered the most treatable of all emotional problems.
Faced by a threat, your body responds with a complex cascade of chemicals. The hypothalamus, alerted by the brain, pumps out a specialized hormone that ultimately prompts the two adrenal glands (perched atop the kidneys) to release the energizing hormone known as adrenaline. The result--faster pulse, higher blood pressure, sharpened awareness--is the "fight or flight" response to fear and anxiety.
Many people with anxiety disorders benefit from joining a self-help group and sharing their problems and achievements with others. Talking with trusted friends or a trusted member of the clergy can also be very helpful, although not a substitute for mental health care. Participating in an Internet chat room may also be of value in sharing concerns and decreasing a sense of isolation, but any advice received should be viewed with caution.
The family is of great importance in the recovery of a person with an anxiety disorder. Ideally, the family should be supportive without helping to perpetuate the person's symptoms. If the family tends to trivialize the disorder or demand improvement without treatment, the affected person will suffer. You may wish to show this booklet to your family and enlist their help as educated allies in your fight against your anxiety disorder.
Psychopharmacology, the treatment of psychiatric disorders and emotional distress with medication, has developed over the last fifty years, as our understanding of the workings of the brain has increased in sophistication. When medication is prescribed for mental and emotional illness, the most frequent goal is to restore the chemical balance within the brain, thereby restoring equilibrium to the entire system. Certain drugs function to address certain symptoms, such as when sedatives are prescribed for insomnia. Medications can work to slow disease processes, such as when anti-oxidants are used to treat Alzheimer's. Still other drugs control cravings and curb other problematic behaviors, such as taken to control alcoholism.
It is not entirely clear why psychotropic medications work; yet, it appears that they reestablish balance within the chemistry of the brain. Behavior is determined through messages transmitted within the brain from one nerve cell to another through various chemicals. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters. Through the millions of nerve cells within the brain, chemicals trigger memories, sleep patterns, perceptions, feelings, moods and thoughts. The electric current that carries the messages are received by nerve ends, called synapses, which then release the neurotransmitter. These chemicals, in turn, propagate the message by stimulating the next nerves in line to send on the electrical message. Once used, the neurotransmitter chemical is returned and stored in the nerve end. This recycling process is called reuptake. When this signaling process goes askew, the effects are seen in a person's behavior and experienced in his emotions, perceptions, sensations, and ideas.
Definitions and terms on this page
- A state of uneasiness and apprehension, as about future uncertainties.
- Worry or tension in response to real or imagined stress, danger, or dreaded situations. Physical reactions such as fast pulse, sweating, trembling, fatigue, and weakness may accompany anxiety.
- A psychiatric disorder involving the presence of anxiety that is so intense or so frequently present that it causes difficulty or distress for the individual.
- Any of various disorders in which anxiety is either the primary disturbance or is the result of confronting a feared situation or object; they include obsessive-compulsive disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder.
- Fear is an unpleasant feeling of perceived risk or danger, whether it be real or imagined.
- In psychiatry, a symptom of mood disorder characterized by intense feelings of loss, sadness, hopelessness, failure, and rejection.
- A state of emotional and psychological well-being in which an individual is able to use his or her cognitive and emotional capabilities, function in society, and meet the ordinary demands of everyday life.
- The psychological state of someone who is functioning at a satisfactory level of emotional and behavioral adjustment.
- A state of extreme difficulty, pressure, or strain.
- A physical and psychological response that results from being exposed to a demand or pressure.