The number of people struggling with anxiety disorders has dramatically increased in the last few decades. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 20 percent of American adults 18 years and older are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, which translates to more than 50 million adults. The actual number is probably even higher than that, considering that people who struggle with anxiety often feel too powerless, overwhelmed or embarrassed to seek professional help. With greater awareness of the debilitating nature of anxiety disorders, a variety of effective treatments have been developed in the past few decades. Understanding some important facts about anxiety is the first step to demystifying these emotions and regaining control.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural emotion that most people experience at different times in their lives. It is normal to feel anxious or stressed before taking an exam, going on a first date, giving a talk or dealing with challenges at home or at work. Anxiety is primarily perceived as an unpleasant internal sensation. Your heart beats faster, your breath shortens, your muscles tighten, your hands sweat, your mouth is dry, the hairs on your body stand up and you may feel nauseous and start shaking from head to toe.
The resourceful and adaptive aspect of anxiety is to keep you safe by placing you on alert, causing you to notice and anticipate danger and either take precautions or appropriately address the situation. A low-grade anxiety can keep you on your toes and prevent you from putting yourself into situations that could potentially harm you. A slightly more intense form of anxiety mobilizes additional energy and resources, so that you are mentally and physically ready to either fight or run from the perceived source of danger. When anxiety starts to interfere with your abilities to function normally in life, you may be dealing with an anxiety disorder. Although anxiety can make you feel helpless and debilitated, it is neither a flaw nor a weakness and therefore nothing to feel embarrassed about. If you feel that the intensity and frequency of your anxiety diminishes your quality of life, ask your doctor which of the proven treatment methods may be right for you. The following are the most common anxiety disorders:
People who struggle with panic disorder experience repeated anxiety attacks, which can last for several minutes. A panic attack can cause strong physical symptoms, such as shortness of breath, heart pounding and even chest pain, which is why many initially interpret these physical sensations as having a heart attack. Since the intense anxiety appears so suddenly and without any obvious triggers, people tend to worry about when the next attack will occur. For some, the fear of a future panic attack limits their ability to function normally. They avoid everyday activities like driving or going to the grocery store out of fear of having to go through another embarrassing episode in public.
A phobia is a strong fear of a specific object or situation, which in reality poses very little or no danger. When a phobia is triggered, a person experiences intense avoidance anxiety. Common phobias include the fear of snakes, spiders, needles, flying, heights, open spaces, small spaces, flying and driving. Most phobias are developed during childhood in response to traumatic experiences.
Social Anxiety Disorder
This form of anxiety involves an extreme and unreasonable fear of social situations — speaking, eating or working in front of others, interacting with people at social gatherings, using public restrooms. People with social anxiety are worried about being judged, criticized and rejected. They are excessively concerned about making a mistake, looking foolish or being ridiculed and humiliated by others. As a result, social situations become very stressful or are avoided altogether. Social anxiety is often rooted in limiting beliefs, such as “not being good enough” or “not fitting in.”
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) describe an almost constant sense of tension and worry, although they consciously know that rationally there is nothing to be afraid of. They often experience life as unsafe and overwhelming and themselves as small and powerless. GAD is frequently associated with insomnia and physical symptoms, including low energy, muscle pains, problems swallowing, hot flashes and frequent urination.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is a form of anxiety, which develops after a traumatic, often life-threatening event. PTSD can occur in people who went through a distressing experience themselves as well as those who witnessed a distressing event or arrived later and were repeatedly exposed to details of the event, for example, members of an emergency response team. PTSD symptoms typically start within the first three months following the traumatic event. People relive the terrifying ordeal through flashbacks, hallucinations and nightmares. They tend to avoid situations that remind them of the trauma and often become increasingly stressed, tense and reactionary. Besides intense anxiety, PTSD can lead to anger outbursts and rage, severe guilt and shame and self-destructive behavior.