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What Is Anxiety? Understanding Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention
Anxiety is a natural response to stress, but excessive and uncontrollable feelings of fear or nervousness may be a sign of an anxiety disorder. Learn more about this common mental health condition and how to manage it.
Understanding the Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety can manifest itself as both a mental and physical state, with a biological chain reaction occurring when we encounter stressful events or anticipate potential stressors. Physical symptoms like rapid heart rate, chest tightness, sweating, headaches, and insomnia may be accompanied by psychological symptoms such as feeling restless, experiencing obsessive thoughts or dread, and irritability.
Some of the most common symptoms of anxiety disorders include:
- Feelings of apprehension
- Anticipating the worst
- Tremors or twitches
- Frequent urination or diarrhea
- Nausea or upset stomach
When anxiety symptoms and associated behaviors begin to negatively impact your life and daily functioning, seeking treatment is essential. According to Suma Chand, PhD, director of the cognitive-behavioral therapy program at St. Louis University School of Medicine, panic disorder can lead to avoidance of situations that may trigger panic symptoms and can severely impact the ability to work, shop, attend church, or function in general. If anxiety is causing discomfort and preventing you from functioning effectively in triggering situations, it’s necessary to seek professional help.
Exploring the Causes and Risk Factors of Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health issues. They are characterized by a range of symptoms, including physical and psychological discomfort, that can have a significant impact on a person’s day-to-day life. Researchers have identified various factors that may contribute to the development of anxiety disorders, and understanding these risk factors is important for diagnosis and treatment.
Individuals with a family history of anxiety disorders are at an increased risk of developing one themselves. While genetic transmission may play a role, it is also possible that anxious responses are learned from family members with anxiety.
According to Suma Chand, PhD, director of the cognitive behavioral therapy program at St. Louis University School of Medicine, individuals with temperaments of behavioral inhibition, negative affectivity, and anxiety sensitivity may be more susceptible to anxiety disorders. Behavioral inhibition causes heightened reactions to new situations, while negative affectivity is the tendency to experience negative emotions. Anxiety sensitivity refers to the belief that anxiety symptoms are harmful.
Children who have experienced abuse or other traumatic events are more likely to develop anxiety disorders, as are adults who have been exposed to traumatic experiences.
Stress is a significant contributor to anxiety, and both major stressors and ongoing stress can trigger the disorder. Work issues, financial problems, and chronic health issues can all contribute to stress.
Drug or alcohol use, misuse, or withdrawal can also cause or aggravate anxiety symptoms.
Changes in the areas of the brain that regulate stress and anxiety may contribute to the development of anxiety disorders.
Genetics and Environment
There is a genetic component to anxiety disorders, but environmental factors also play a role. A study published in the journal Emotion found that infants of anxious mothers were more likely to focus on potential threats, suggesting that this may be one way anxiety begins to take hold. Learning to be anxious in specific situations, such as through exposure to traumatic events or through vicarious conditioning, may also contribute to the development of anxiety disorders.
When to Seek Help
If you experience symptoms of anxiety that significantly impact your day-to-day life, seeking help is important. Panic disorder can cause individuals to avoid situations that may trigger their symptoms, impacting their ability to work, shop, or attend social events. Treatment can help individuals manage their symptoms and improve their functioning.
Diagnosing Anxiety: What to Expect
If you’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety, it’s important to speak with a healthcare provider. Here’s what you can expect during the diagnostic process.
Physical Exam and Lab Tests
Your healthcare provider will begin by performing a physical exam and ordering lab tests to rule out any other underlying health conditions that may be causing your symptoms. These tests can include blood tests, urine tests, and imaging tests.
Referral to a Mental Health Professional
If lab tests don’t reveal any other conditions, your healthcare provider will likely refer you to a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. These specialists have the training and expertise to identify the specific type of anxiety disorder that’s causing your symptoms.
During your evaluation, the mental health professional will ask you about your symptoms and medical history. They’ll also look for any other mental health conditions that you may be experiencing, such as depression.
Using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the mental health professional will assess your symptoms and determine whether they meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder. The DSM-5 is a guidebook used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental health disorders.
Once a diagnosis has been made, the mental health professional will work with you to create a treatment plan that’s tailored to your specific needs. Treatment for anxiety can include therapy, medication, or a combination of both. Your mental health professional will work with you to determine the best course of treatment for your individual needs.
Understanding Anxiety Disorders: A Breakdown
Anxiety disorders are a group of mental health conditions characterized by excessive fear, worry, and apprehension. They can cause a range of physical and emotional symptoms, including sweating, shaking, racing thoughts, and difficulty concentrating. Below, we’ll explore the different types of anxiety disorders and their symptoms.
What Is Agoraphobia?
Agoraphobia is a type of anxiety disorder that is often comorbid with panic disorder. People with agoraphobia experience an intense fear of not being able to escape whatever place they’re in, which can lead to an avoidance of leaving the house. They may feel uncomfortable or unsafe in public, crowded places, and can fear situations where their anxiety might flare up.
What Are Some Other Phobia-Related Disorders?
Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder, characterized by an excessive and persistent fear of a specific object, situation, or activity that is generally not harmful. Examples include fear of flying, fear of germs, and arachnophobia. People with specific phobias understand that their fear may be irrational, but they can’t control their reaction, and their desire to avoid triggers interferes with their daily routines. Specific phobias can develop in childhood, but the onset can also be sudden, sometimes the result of a traumatic event or experience.
What Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)?
Generalized anxiety disorder is a condition in which worries overwhelm you to the point where your daily routine seems difficult to carry out, and you have been worrying this way for at least six months. People with GAD may feel on edge and have difficulty focusing on tasks, with a tendency to fear and expect the worst. They may recognize that their worries are irrational, but still feel them intensely.
What Is Panic Disorder?
While everyone has probably experienced panic or something like it, panic disorder is characterized by frequent panic attacks and a fear of having them. Panic attacks have many physical symptoms and tend to peak around 10 minutes, and may last for 30. People with panic disorder may experience this heightened state of anxiety and panic regularly, affecting their daily routines.
What Is Social Anxiety Disorder?
Social anxiety disorder is characterized by intense fears of being judged by others that cause people to avoid social situations. For most people, fears of social situations usually subside once the intimidating event has been faced. But in social anxiety disorder, these feelings are persistent and usually last for at least six months.
Diagnosing Anxiety Disorders
When you visit a healthcare provider for anxiety symptoms, they will likely ask about your symptoms and perform a physical exam to rule out other health problems. Lab tests may also be ordered. If no other conditions are found, your doctor may refer you to a mental health professional for a diagnosis. A mental health professional will identify the specific type of anxiety disorder that’s causing your symptoms and look for any other mental health conditions, including depression.
The Duration of Anxiety: Can It Be Managed?
Anxiety can be a debilitating condition that affects many people, but fortunately, there are treatments available. Through a combination of therapy and medication, it is possible to manage anxiety and improve your quality of life. Additionally, changing the way you think about your emotions can also be helpful.
Understanding the Ebb and Flow of Emotions
According to experts, it’s important to recognize that emotions are not static, but rather dynamic and ever-changing experiences. Dr. Clyman notes that anxiety can feel like it will never end, but it is more like a wave that rises and falls. While it may increase in intensity at times, it will eventually reach a plateau and pass.
Treating Anxiety: Medication and Therapy Options
Anxiety disorders are a common mental health condition that can be treated with a combination of medication and therapy. If you are feeling overwhelmed or anxious, talking to a mental health professional is a great first step.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered the most effective form of therapy for anxiety disorders. CBT aims to help individuals identify negative thinking patterns that contribute to their anxiety and learn coping strategies to replace these thoughts with more positive ones. The therapy also provides patients with tools to manage their anxious thoughts and behaviors.
Antidepressants are the most commonly prescribed medications for anxiety disorders. These medications work by altering the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin and norepinephrine. Anti-anxiety medications may also be used, but they are generally only recommended for short-term use due to their potential for dependence.
Finding the Right Medication
Since each individual responds differently to medication, it may take some time to find the right medication or combination of medications that works best for you. It is important to work closely with a psychiatrist or other mental health professional to monitor your symptoms and adjust your medication as needed.
The most effective treatment for anxiety often involves a combination of medication and therapy. Therapy can provide patients with coping mechanisms and long-term strategies for managing their anxiety, while medication can help alleviate symptoms in the short-term. A mental health professional can work with you to develop a treatment plan that is tailored to your unique needs and goals.
In conclusion, anxiety disorders can be effectively treated through a combination of medication and therapy. The most effective form of therapy is cognitive-behavioral therapy, which helps individuals identify and change negative thinking patterns. Antidepressants are commonly used to treat anxiety, but finding the right medication or combination of medications may take some time. It is important to work with a mental health professional to develop a personalized treatment plan that works best for you.
Anxiety-Relieving Techniques: What Are They?
Aside from medication and therapy, there are various techniques and practices that can help alleviate anxiety symptoms. These include exercise, yoga, meditation, acupuncture, massage therapy, and aromatherapy.
Exercise as an Anxiety-Relieving Technique
Aerobic exercise, in particular, has been shown to improve mood and reduce anxiety by releasing endorphins and neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. It can also improve sleep, which in turn can have a positive impact on anxiety levels.
Yoga, Meditation, and Acupuncture
Research suggests that yoga, meditation, and acupuncture can also be effective in reducing anxiety symptoms by helping to reduce stress levels. While these practices may not work for everyone, many find them to be calming and beneficial.
While there is limited scientific evidence to support massage therapy as a treatment for anxiety, some people find that it improves their overall sense of well-being and helps to reduce stress.
Certain scents, such as lavender, are believed to have a calming effect and may help to alleviate anxiety symptoms. However, it’s important to note that different scents may work better for different people.
There are many anxiety-relieving techniques available, and what works for one person may not work for another. It’s important to explore different options and find what works best for you. If you’re struggling with anxiety, don’t hesitate to reach out to a healthcare professional for guidance and support.
Preventing Anxiety: Strategies and Techniques
Anxiety disorders can develop without warning or provocation, making it difficult to predict who will develop them. However, there are steps you can take to prevent anxiety disorders or manage the symptoms if they arise. Early treatment is essential because anxiety can be harder to treat as it persists.
Staying Active and Limiting Substance Use
Staying active and exercising regularly can help manage anxiety symptoms, as physical activity releases endorphins and neurotransmitters that improve mood and decrease anxiety. Additionally, limiting substance use is vital as drugs, alcohol, and caffeine can worsen anxiety symptoms.
Stress Management Strategies
Learning stress management strategies can be beneficial in preventing anxiety. Techniques such as breaking down tasks into manageable steps, scheduling activities, and delegating responsibilities are useful in managing stress. Meditation and relaxation practices can also help reduce stress levels.
Building good relationships and developing communication skills can create a protective force against anxiety. A social support system helps to reduce stress associated with social interactions that can sometimes be challenging.
Creating a healthy lifestyle by establishing good sleep hygiene, healthy nutrition, regular exercise, and self-care can help prevent anxiety disorders.
Developing coping skills that involve facing stressful problems, rather than avoiding them, can be useful in reducing stress and anxiety. Using problem-solving coping skills is a beneficial technique in reducing anxiety.
Creating a more optimistic outlook involves recognizing negative thinking patterns and establishing a more balanced perspective. The earlier this is done, the more likely it will help prevent anxiety disorders.
Mental Health Education
Good mental health education is essential in preventing anxiety disorders. Educating individuals on the prevention, management, and treatment of mental health problems is vital in creating a society that is more mentally healthy. Starting mental health education early in schools is ideal and has yielded positive results.
In conclusion, preventing anxiety disorders is possible by incorporating various strategies and techniques into daily life. Seeking early treatment, staying active, building a social support system, and developing coping skills are all crucial in preventing and managing anxiety disorders. Mental health education is also vital in creating a mentally healthy society.
How Does Diet Affect Anxiety?
While diet alone is not a substitute for professional treatment, studies suggest that certain dietary changes can help to alleviate anxiety symptoms. Complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, are thought to increase serotonin levels in the brain, which can improve mood and promote relaxation. Including these in your diet may be helpful in managing anxiety symptoms. Starting the day with a protein-rich breakfast could also be beneficial, as it can help to stabilize blood sugar levels and keep you feeling fuller for longer, potentially leading to a greater sense of calm. On the other hand, caffeine and alcohol are known to worsen anxiety symptoms and should be avoided or limited as much as possible. Caffeine can cause jitters and increased heart rate, leading to feelings of nervousness and tension, while alcohol can disrupt sleep and worsen mood. It’s important to be mindful of these effects and limit your intake accordingly.
Complications of Long-Term Anxiety
Prolonged anxiety can have serious consequences for both your physical and mental health. Anxiety disorders can exacerbate existing health issues or lead to new concerns.
Worsening of Existing Conditions
Anxiety can lead to depression, worsen insomnia, digestive problems, headaches, and chronic pain. It can also contribute to substance abuse, social isolation, and problems functioning at work.
Severe anxiety can lead to suicidal thoughts, which can be life-threatening. It is essential to seek medical help if you experience suicidal thoughts.
Chronic Medical Conditions
Untreated anxiety is linked to chronic gastrointestinal and respiratory disorders, as well as heart disease. Prolonged anxiety can make these conditions more difficult to manage, which can worsen outcomes.
Managing Long-Term Anxiety
It is essential to manage long-term anxiety to prevent complications. Treatment options include therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes, such as stress management techniques, exercise, and a healthy diet. Seeking treatment early is crucial, as prolonged anxiety can lead to more severe complications.
Exploring Research and Statistics on Anxiety Disorders: Prevalence, Gender Differences, and Age of Onset
Anxiety disorders can impact people of all ages, from childhood to late adulthood. The following discussion highlights the latest research and statistics on anxiety disorders, including their prevalence, gender differences, and age of onset.
Prevalence of Anxiety Disorders: How Common Are They?
According to the World Health Organization, approximately 4.4 percent of the world’s population suffers from anxiety disorders. In the United States, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that 19 percent of American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder each year.
Research on gender differences in anxiety disorders has shown that women are more than twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with one. It is not yet clear why this is the case, but researchers have theorized that it may be due to a combination of social and biological factors. Some studies suggest that women may be more comfortable discussing their emotions than men, leading to a higher diagnosis rate. Other research suggests that women’s amygdalae, the brain’s fear-processing centers, may be more sensitive to negative stimuli and hold onto these memories longer.
Age of Onset: When Do Symptoms Tend to Start?
Anxiety disorders can develop at any age, but some types are more likely to emerge during certain periods. For example, specific phobias and social anxiety disorder are more common in childhood or teenage years, while generalized anxiety disorder typically arises in young adulthood.
The emotional toll of anxiety disorders can cause other health issues or exacerbate existing ones. Chronic health conditions, such as heart disease or multiple sclerosis, are more prevalent in people with anxiety disorders. The Brain and Behavior journal notes that almost 11 percent of Westerners with heart disease reported having generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and 32 percent of those with multiple sclerosis had some kind of anxiety disorder.
Anxiety Disorders in Children and Teens
Anxiety disorders are the most common childhood mental health problem, affecting up to one in ten children and teens, according to Boston Children’s Hospital. Generalized anxiety disorder in children and teens can manifest as excessive worry about performance in school or sports, or catastrophic events such as natural disasters. Children may not understand that their anxiety is more extreme than the situation warrants, and older kids who have intense fear when they’re apart from their caregivers may have separation anxiety disorder. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, separation anxiety disorder affects four percent of children and is most common in children ages seven to nine.
Anxiety disorders are prevalent and can negatively impact physical and mental health outcomes. They can develop at any age, and some types are more likely to manifest during certain periods of life. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders than men, and children and teens are at risk of developing them as well. Treatment for anxiety disorders is available and can improve outcomes.
Anxiety Disorders and Health Disparities in Black and Asian Americans
Anxiety disorders are a serious mental health issue affecting millions of people worldwide, but research suggests that certain populations may be more vulnerable to underdiagnosis and undertreatment. Black and Asian Americans are two groups that have been shown to face unique challenges when it comes to accessing care for anxiety disorders.
Underdiagnosis of Anxiety Disorders in Black Americans
According to a study published in January 2019 in the journal Society & Mental Health, anxiety disorders may be underdiagnosed in Black patients.right up arrow The study examined the gap between reported anxiety symptoms and diagnosis rates and found that Native American, white, and Hispanic/Latino Americans were more likely than Black respondents to receive an anxiety disorder diagnosis. Researchers suggest that this disparity may be due to various factors, including socioeconomic disparities, stigma within the community, and bias on the part of healthcare providers.
Barriers to Mental Health Care for Black Americans
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) notes that Black Americans face a range of barriers to care for mental health conditions.right up arrow In addition to the aforementioned underdiagnosis, these barriers include limited access to mental health services, lack of cultural competence among healthcare providers, and inadequate insurance coverage for mental health treatment. Stigma and shame around mental health issues may also prevent individuals from seeking care when they need it most.
Unique Challenges for Asian Americans with Anxiety Disorders
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are another group that has been shown to face significant challenges when it comes to accessing mental health care. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, AAPI individuals have the lowest help-seeking rate of any racial or ethnic group in the United States.right up arrow Language barriers, cultural stigma around mental health, the “model minority” stereotype, and lack of insurance may all contribute to treatment delays and disparities in AAPI populations.
Cultural Factors and Mental Health Care
Mental health care is often shaped by cultural factors, and this can be especially true for ethnic minority populations. For example, in some Asian cultures, mental health conditions are often viewed as a personal failing or a sign of weakness, which can prevent individuals from seeking care. Similarly, Black Americans may be more likely to rely on family and community support networks than professional mental health services. Understanding these cultural nuances is critical for addressing disparities in mental health care and ensuring that all individuals receive the care they need.
Anxiety-Related Conditions and Coexisting Disorders
Anxiety disorders can occur with other chronic health conditions, including:
- Hepatitis C
- Multiple sclerosis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Chronic migraine
Depression and Its Relationship with Anxiety
Although depression and anxiety are different mood disorders, it is common for someone with an anxiety disorder to also suffer from depression. Nearly half of all people diagnosed with depression also have an anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).
Anxiety and depression can trigger each other, and anxiety disorders may even predict a major depressive episode. Researchers have found that individuals who suffer from both anxiety and depression tend to experience more severe symptoms and have an earlier onset of both conditions.
Symptoms of coexisting anxiety and depression may include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Increased fatigue
- Trouble concentrating
- Obsessive worrying
- Constant feelings of dread
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Anxiety
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is not officially classified as an anxiety disorder by the American Psychological Association, but it does share many traits with common anxiety disorders. In both OCD and anxiety disorders, you may recognize that your thoughts are irrational but feel unable to stop thinking them. In OCD, these thoughts may involve cleanliness, sex, or religion, and you may feel compelled to carry out certain actions in order to relieve anxiety. This can interfere with your daily routine, causing distress and anxiety.
Anxiety can be a coexisting disorder with a variety of chronic conditions, and it often goes hand in hand with depression. OCD also shares many traits with common anxiety disorders and can significantly affect daily life. Seeking professional help and understanding the relationship between anxiety, depression, and coexisting disorders can lead to effective treatment and improved quality of life.
Our Favorite Anxiety Resources: Trusted Organizations, Inspiring Sites, and More
Anxiety disorders affect millions of people worldwide. While anxiety can feel overwhelming, there are resources available to help you manage your symptoms and find support. In this article, we highlight our favorite organizations, websites, books, and podcasts that offer help and information to people living with anxiety.
Trusted Organizations for Essential Anxiety Information
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
NAMI is an organization that has been raising awareness and offering support for mental health disorders, including anxiety, since 1979. The organization provides information on how to cope with these disorders, and you can access free crisis support via the NAMI HelpLine. The site also has online discussion groups dedicated to dealing with various aspects of anxiety.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)
The ADAA offers a range of free resources, including online support groups, podcasts, videos, Twitter chats, and recorded webinars dedicated to the topic of anxiety.
American Psychiatric Association (APA)
The APA is a respected organization of psychiatrists that provides information for patients and loved ones looking for guidance on living with anxiety. You can also search for a psychiatrist through the site.
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
The NIMH website provides current statistics and information on anxiety and other mental disorders. You can also find ongoing studies to participate in.
Sites to Make You Feel Like You’re Not the Only One
People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project
The People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project is a living online self-portrait gallery dedicated to eradicating shame, stigma, and stereotypes around mental illness. Those living with depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders submit photos of themselves holding signs describing their illness.
The Mighty is a website with over 2 million registered users who share raw and honest accounts of what it’s like to struggle with anxiety, depression, and other health issues. Healthcare professionals also chime in from time to time to lessen the stigma and show support. The site offers Facebook-like communities centered on over 6,000 topics, ranging from self-care to living with a rare disease.
Best Books on Living and Dealing With Anxiety
My Age of Anxiety, by Scott Stossel
In this book, Scott Stossel, the editor of The Atlantic, draws on his personal experience with anxiety while digging into history, philosophy, and science to chronicle the ways in which we’ve attempted to deal with the condition.
On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety, by Andrea Petersen
Science and health reporter Andrea Petersen delves into the reasons anxiety tends to affect women more than men, interviews experts in the field, and surveys current research and treatments along with her own family history in this book.
Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, by Daniel Smith
Author and journalist Daniel Smith deploys humor to deal with his monkey mind in this funny New York Times bestselling memoir.
First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety, by Sarah Wilson
Sarah Wilson, an Australian journalist, interviews authorities around the world in this mix of memoir, journalism, and self-help, with practical and compassionate advice for conquering anxiety.
Most Anxiety-Free Online Therapy Search Experience
Zencare provides a calming online experience for finding therapists. You can review videos of therapists and then schedule a free 10-minute phone call with them via the site to see if you’re a good match. Providers are vetted to make sure they’re licensed by the state they work in and certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. You can also find information on different therapy groups in your area. The only downside is that the site currently only covers New York, Rhode Island, Boston, Chicago, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Seattle.
Favorite (Soothingly Wise) Podcast
The multimedia publishing company Sounds True, which began in 1985 as a radio program, aims to inspire spiritual understanding and transformation. While the free podcast offered up by the Sounds True team doesn’t address anxiety and other mood disorders head on, the interviews with various authors, thinkers, therapists, and scholars is a compassionate, thoughtful companion to anyone struggling with what it means to be human, and as such, imperfect.