What is an anxiety disorder?
Experiencing anxiety is just a part of life. Everyone has felt anticipation, butterflies, and nervousness about a big event or job. This is simply how humans react to stress and there is no way around it. With that being said, it is important to distinguish between common anxiety and medically-classified anxiety disorders.
Anxiety is defined in the dictionary as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” This is a normal human feeling that helps keep us honest and efficient in our daily lives. However, when these feelings of unease and anxiousness begin to impact our daily lives negatively, it becomes an anxiety disorder.
Some of the most common symptoms of anxiety disorders include:
- Constant, unsubstantiated worry
- Sudden, uncalled for panic attacks
- Feelings of anxiety towards every type of social interaction
- Irrational fears of objects, places, or events
- Difficulty sleeping
- Shortness of breath
One of the key distinguishing factors of anxiety disorder is the randomness of symptom onset. Typical anxiety is centered around common stressors such as a new job, paying bills, awkward social situations, moving to a new city, or realistic fears of dangerous things. This classifies normal anxiety, whereas constant worry and unwarranted physical symptoms may be telltale signs that you have an anxiety disorder.
Dr. Michelle Craske, Director of the Anxiety Disorders Behaviors Research program at UCLA, stated in an interview, “…these states of anxiety and fear are part of normal human emotional experience, but for certain individuals, they become more frequent, or they start to occur at times that are out of proportion with the actual danger inherent in the situation…And therefore, anxiety is a problem and it starts to interfere with the individual’s daily life functioning, and that’s what we mean by an anxiety disorder, where the states of anxiety and fear are occurring too often and are impairing functioning.
How common are anxiety disorders in the United States?
Anxiety has become a very common talking point in recent years due to the prevalence of reported cases as well as the increased social awareness of mental illnesses. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 1 in 13 individuals worldwide suffers from anxiety or a specific type of anxiety disorder. 18% of people here in the United States suffer from anxiety – with only one-third of these people receiving proper treatment. This makes anxiety the most prevalent mental illness in the country.
Not only does a fast-paced and stressful society lead to an increased number of anxiety cases, but the poor diet most Americans subscribe to contributes as well. If you suffer from high blood pressure your chances of experiencing symptoms of anxiety increase. On the bright side, this prevalence has brought mental illness and its treatment into the forefront of social issues. The stigma that used to surround anxiety is diminishing as more and more people feel comfortable about discussing their issues and talking to a doctor about their situation. The first step towards the prevention and proper treatment of anxiety disorders is proper education on management, treatment, and prevention.
Managing anxiety disorder
The most direct and effective way you can start to manage your anxiety is to speak to a professional. Simply discussing your symptoms and personal experiences with a psychologist or doctor can help shed light on your situation. There is no better way to get a firm understanding of your unique case of anxiety, its severity, and the prevention and treatment options available to you.
Anxiety disorder symptoms are different for everyone. While this is true, it is very beneficial to get an outside perspective on how you may be interpreting symptoms. Speaking to a psychologist can help reveal negative thought patterns and potentially save you from a cycle of repeated behavior. Having an awareness of the irrationality of certain thought patterns is key in managing them. Together with your therapist, you can discover the roots of your anxiety and begin to rationalize them and diminish their control over your emotions. Getting an anxiety disorder test performed can help to detect early signs of various types of anxiety disorders and curb the progression into a more serious and difficult to treat mental state.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, there are a variety of anxiety disorder treatment options that you can utilize to help curb symptoms and get back to a normal daily life. These include:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
The goal of CBT is to help teach patients suffering from mental illness new ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to the things that cause your anxiety. The two most common methods include cognitive therapy, which involves challenging and rewiring your current thought patterns that cause your anxiety. The second method is known as exposure therapy. This type of therapy involves challenging you to gradually confront your fears and build a mental defense against anxiety in the process. Exposure therapy is often used along with relaxation exercises that help you to conquer these difficult situations. It is most often done gradually and allows you to break down the mental walls holding you back little by little. Both of these methods are proven by extensive research.
Medications are not a cure for anxiety but can help support your efforts to treat it. A physician-approved medication plan along with a healthy diet, exercise, and psychological counseling can help give you the tools you need to conquer your anxiety disorder symptoms. Rewiring your thought processes and adopting a fresh perspective is difficult. These medications are designed to treat the physical symptoms of anxiety as well as promote healthy brain chemistry.
Some of the most common medications include:
Also referred to as benzodiazepines, these medications can help you relieve anxiety symptoms much faster than antidepressants. They fight off panic attacks, extreme worry, and can even help you get to sleep easier in some cases. It is extremely important to only take these medications alongside your doctor because of their addictive nature. A slow, measured approach at first is most common to supplement therapy. Always taper off these meds slowly to avoid withdrawal symptoms and a difficult transition.
Most commonly used to reduce blood pressure, these medications can help reduce the bouts of anxiety that come on quickly. They help reduce your heart rate, calm you down, and reset your mental state when your body would normally be fighting you. Using beta-blockers along with exposure therapy is a common technique among physicians and psychologists.
While mainly used for depression, antidepressants are commonly used to help reduce symptoms of anxiety. It is believed they help to support the process of therapy by allowing your brain to better use the chemicals that control your mood and regulate stress. It is important to be very picky and honest about your experience with antidepressants because each person reacts differently to the many different options available. Be honest with your doctor about your experience and you will find the ideal medication to support your total treatment plan.
Seeking professional help
Anxiety disorders are nothing to be ashamed of. Most people undervalue the importance of simply getting an outside perspective from a trained professional. In most cases, this is the one thing that helps you begin to see things in a new way and adopt a healthier mindset. Anxiety will try to convince you no one understands – but they do.
When it comes to anxiety disorders, the sooner you can develop a full-spectrum treatment with a psychologist or physician, the better. When anxiety is left unchecked for years, the negative thoughts and feelings can begin to detach you from reality, which makes it difficult to separate symptoms from your imagination. Seeing a psychologist as a preventative measure is a good idea for those who are prone to stress. This will prevent small stressors and anxious tendencies from developing into a full-blown anxiety disorder.
Seeing a therapist is one important – and sometimes undervalued – component of an overall healthy lifestyle that will minimize anxiety and stress. The brain is muscle just like the rest of your body. It requires healthy exercise and practice to stay healthy too.