Anxiety disorders are mental health illnesses that are categorized by bursts of severe and almost crippling anxiety or panic on a regular basis. Anxiety disorders often occur with other illnesses, such as OCD and/or PTSD (Mayo Clinic). Some forms of anxiety disorders can also lead to depression (for more information on these diseases, please refer to our other articles on OCD, PTSD, and Clinical Depression). Anxiety disorders are different from the normal anxiety one feels because of everyday stressors. For someone with anxiety disorders, the anxiety does not go away over time. In fact, it may gradually worsen as time passes. There are various specific anxiety disorders, but many of the symptoms are similar.
Three main categories of anxiety disorders are currently recognized. They include Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Phobias (and other related disorders). The signs and symptoms of the disorders are very similar but can occur at different places and/or in different situations. Although it is important to never generalize mental health issues, recognizing the relationship between these disorders in their expression of similar symptoms suggests that having one disorder can increase the chances of acquiring another.
Generalized anxiety disorder (abbreviated as GAD) has a few main symptoms. In essence, the disorder involves excessive anxiety over a period of 6 months (although the anxiety can be intermittent, it should be present for the majority of the 6 month period). GAD can cause crippling anxiety about any aspect of life, whether it is the environment, school or work, social relationships, etc. Symptoms of the disorder are (NIMH):
Feeling restless or on edge
Fatigue with difficulty concentrating
Trouble sleeping (difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, etc.)
Panic disorders occur in a slightly different manner. Essentially, it is characterized by bouts of panic attacks that occur unexpectedly or due to a specific trigger. Panic attacks usually trigger intense fear and reach their climax within minutes of occurrence. People with this type of disorder actively worry about when the next panic attack will occur, trying to avoid places, behaviors, and situations that they believe could trigger another panic attack. This relates to OCD in that they may try to isolate themselves from the troublesome stimuli by being hypervigilant about removing its presence from their lives. Symptoms are usually experienced in the form of panic attacks, which involve (NIMH):
Heart begins to beat too fast
Heart begins to beat irregularly
Heart begins to pound particularly loudly (to the individual)
Sweating, trembling, shaking
Shortness of breath
Losing grip on reality
Phobia disorders are similar to panic disorders. However, they involve specific triggers that lead to nerve-wracking fear. For example, ophidiophobia is the fear of snakes, which results in one being particularly alarmed and scared by the presence of a snake or possibly even a picture of one. It may seem reasonable to be afraid of some things (such as snakes), but the fear caused is disproportionate to the stimulus (NIMH). Due to this and the myriad of things for which one may become phobic, people with phobias often have what may be misunderstood as simply irrational fears.
A particular type of phobia-related disorder is social anxiety disorder. This is very common in the younger generation as the presence of social media creates a desire to maintain a seemingly perfect external facade of oneself. The signs and symptoms of the disorder include a large amount of anxiety stemming from interactions with others. People with this disorder worry that their actions will be judged and evaluated constantly, causing them to feel fear about the idea of social interaction. Many people with social anxiety disorder tend to shy away from social gatherings for this very reason.
Generally speaking, many anxiety disorders are treated with medication. Certain medicines, such as SSRIs (Prozac, Zoloft, etc.) are used to reduce the amount of anxiety stemming from overactive brain chemicals. However, other forms of anxiety disorders are treated through the use of psychotherapy. A common way to treat phobias is by systematic desensitization. This is a process involving the gradual exposure to something one fears and slowly making them comfortable with it. Other treatments include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, support groups, stress management techniques, and various other medications (anti-anxiety medications, beta-blockers, etc.).
Anxiety disorders can often be identified along with a variety of other disorders, such as bipolar disorder, depression, OCD, PTSD, etc. Many of these psychological disorders are similar in the symptoms one experiences, making it more likely to be diagnosed with one disorder if you have another. For example, having anxiety disorders increases the chances for someone to also undergo substance abuse disorder, OCD, and/or depression. Many of these psychological disorders are not mutually exclusive. However, with effective treatment, it is possible to ensure that the disorder is as unobtrusive on daily life as possible.
Anxiety disorders are often stigmatized in society as a disorder that is simply “irrational”. However, to the affected mind, their fears and anxieties are completely sound. One might be afraid of death by meteor, and although this may sound ludicrous to other people, the affected person would find it a completely reasonable and justifiable fear. It is important to treat people with care and compassion when dealing with any mental health disorder, but especially anxiety disorders. Although their reasoning may seem flawed or illogical, one should try to ease a person away from the sensitive topic rather than approaching it with hostility. Understanding, proper care, and compassion can contribute enormously to the recovery process and can make it easier for the person experiencing the symptoms.
This, too, applies to the individual with anxiety disorders: give yourself permission to slowly approach your fears and recognize that there is no shame in taking the time and space to heal.