What are Anxiety Disorders?

Anxiety is a natural human reaction that involves mind and body as an important survival function. Our bodies use anxiety as a trigger that activates whenever we perceive danger or a threat. However, anxiety disorders come about when our natural, survival function becomes uncommonly intensified and more severe.

Anxiety Disorders include the following:

  • Panic disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Social phobia (or social anxiety disorder)
  • Specific phobias, and
  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

Panic disorder is a real illness that can be successfully treated.  It is characterized by sudden attacks of terror, usually accompanied by a pounding heart, sweatiness, weakness, faintness, or dizziness.  During these attacks, people with panic disorder may flush or feel chilled; their hands may tingle or feel numb; and they may experience nausea, chest pain or smothering sensations.  Panic attacks usually produce a sense of unreality, a fear of impending doom, or a fear of losing control.

A fear of one’s own unexplained physical symptoms is also a symptom of panic disorder.  People having panic attacks sometimes believe they are having heart attacks, losing their minds, or on the verge of death.  They can’t predict when or where an attack will occur, and between episodes many worry intensely and dread the next attack.

Panic attacks can occur at any time, even during sleep.  An attack usually peaks within ten minutes, but some symptoms may last much longer.

Panic disorder affects about 6 million American adults and is twice as common in women as men.  Panic attacks often begin in late adolescence or early adulthood.

Panic disorder is one of the most treatable of all the anxiety disorders, responding in most cases to certain kinds of medication or certain kinds of cognitive psychotherapy, which help change thinking patterns that lead to fear and anxiety.

Panic disorders are often accompanied by other serious problems, such as depression, drug abuse, or alcoholism.

People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have persistent, upsetting thoughts (obsessions) and use rituals (compulsions) to control the anxiety these thoughts produce.  Most of the time, the rituals end up controlling them.

For example, if people are obsessed with germs or dirt, they may develop a compulsion to wash their hands over and over again.  If they develop an obsession with intruders, they may lock and relock their doors many times before going to bed.  Being afraid of social embarrassment may prompt people with OCD to comb their hair compulsively in front of a mirror –sometimes they get “caught” in the mirror and can’t move away from it.  Performing such rituals is not pleasurable.  At best, it produces temporary relief from the anxiety created by obsessive thoughts.

Other common rituals are a need to repeatedly check things, ouch things (especially in a particular sequence), or count things.  Some common obsessions include having frequent thoughts of violence and harming loved ones, persistently thinking about performing sexual acts the person dislikes, or having thoughts that are prohibited by religious beliefs.

Healthy people also have rituals, such as checking several times to see if the stove is off before leaving the house.  The difference is that people with OCD perform their rituals even though doing so interferes with daily life and they find the repetition distressing.

OCD affects about 2.2 million American adults and the problem can be accompanied by eating disorders.

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops after a terrifying ordeal that involved physical harm or the threat of physical harm.  The person who develops PTSD may have been the one who was harmed, the harm may have happened to a loved one, or the person may have witnessed a harmful event that happened to loved ones or strangers.

People with PTSD may startle easily, become emotionally numb (especially in relation to people with whom they used to be close), lose interest in things they used to enjoy, have trouble feeling affectionate, be irritable, become more aggressive, or even become violent.  They avoid situations that remind them of the original incident, and anniversaries of the incident are often very difficult.  PTSD symptoms seem to be worse if the event that triggered them was deliberately initiated by another person, as in a mugging or a kidnapping.

Most people with PTSD repeatedly relive the trauma in their thoughts during the day and in nightmares when they sleep.  These are called flashbacks.  Flashbacks may consist of images, sounds, smells, or feelings and are often triggered by ordinary occurrences, such as a door slamming or a car backfiring on the street.  A person having a flashback may lose touch with reality and believe that the traumatic incident is happening all over again.  Symptoms usually begin within 3 months of the incident, but occasionally emerge years afterward.

Social Phobia, also called social anxiety disorder, is diagnosed when people become overwhelmingly anxious and excessively self-conscious in everyday social situations.  People with social phobia have an intense, persistent and chronic fear of being watched and judged by others and of doing things that will embarrass them.  They can worry for days or weeks before a dreaded situation.  This fear may become so severe that it interferes with work, school, and other ordinary activities and can make it hard to make and keep friends.

While many people with social phobia realize that their fears about being with people are excessive or unreasonable, they are unable to overcome them.  Social phobia can be limited to one situation (such as talking to people, eating or drinking, or writing on a blackboard in front of others) or may be so broad (such as in generalized social phobia) that the person experiences anxiety around almost anyone other than the family.

Physical symptoms that often accompany social phobia include blushing, profuse sweating, trembling, nausea and difficulty talking.  When these symptoms occur, people with social phobia feel as though all eyes are focused on them.

Social phobia affects about 15 million American adults.  Women and men are equally as likely to develop the disorder, which usually begins in childhood or early adolescence.  There is some evidence that genetic factors are involved.

A specific phobia is an intense, irrational fear of something that actually poses little or no threat.  Some of the more common specific phobias are heights, escalators, tunnels, highway driving, closed-in -places, water, flying, dogs, spiders, and injuries involving blood.  People with specific phobias may be able to ski the world’s tallest mountain with east, but be unable to go above the fifth floor of an office building.

People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) go through the day filled with exaggerated worry and tension, even though there is little or nothing to provoke it.  They anticipate disaster and are overly concerned about health issues, money, family problems, or difficulties at work.  Sometimes just the thought of getting through the day produces anxiety.

GAD is diagnosed when a person worries excessively about a variety of everyday problems for at least 6 months.  People with GAD can’t seem to get rid of their concerns, even thought they usually realize that their anxiety is more intense that the situation warrants.  They can’t relax, startle easily and have difficulty concentrating.

Treatment of Anxiety Disorders

  • Medications: Anti-Depressants, Anti-Anxiety Drugs and Beta Blockers
  • Psychotherapy
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

– Author Unknown