Everyone feels a little anxious from time to time. Worrying occasionally about your job, your family, or money is part of the human experience. For some people, however, worry begins to take on a life of its own — seeping beyond the inner psyche and manifesting as physical symptoms. In those cases, anxiety disorder may be to blame.
By definition, anxiety is a “baseless, irrational fear.” Those who suffer from anxiety disorder may fear something awful is about to happen — all of the time. If the anxiety is untreated, it can become overwhelming, leading to panic attacks or withdrawal from society.
Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, is what most of us mean when using the umbrella term “anxiety.” GAD affects approximately 6.8 million adults a year and afflicts women at twice the rate of men. It occasionally appears to run in families, but researchers still aren’t certain why some people have it and others don’t. Substance abuse — especially over the long-term — can increase the odds of developing GAD. Heavy caffeine consumption has also been linked to anxiety disorder, as has experiencing a traumatic event — like the death of a loved one.
The good news? Most people with GAD are able to function socially and hold down a job. However, the constant worry can greatly impact quality of life.
Symptoms of Anxiety
Someone suffering from GAD will generally experience several of these symptoms:
- Excessive worry
- Unrealistically negative view of problems
- Restlessness, or feeling “on edge”
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty concentrating
These symptoms can vary in severity from day to day, but they tend to dominate the person’s state of mind, daily activities, and personal relationships.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety can manifest in different ways. Aside from GAD, anxiety disorders include:
1. Social anxiety disorder: Also called a “social phobia,” social anxiety disorder is just what it sounds like — extreme fear and anxiety related to social situations. Experts once thought it was limited to a fear of public speaking, but now it’s known that social anxiety disorder can occur in any situation where you are encountering unfamiliar people. Extreme social anxiety can stop people from interacting with the world around them — fearing routine tasks like ordering food — and can lead to social withdrawal.
2. Panic disorder: Panic disorder is characterized by “panic attacks,” which are sudden onsets of acute fear that something terrible is going to happen. Symptoms include rapid heartbeat, dizziness, and hyperventilation, and may be mistaken for a more serious ailment, like a heart attack. Panic attacks usually don’t last longer than 20 minutes, but their damage can stretch beyond the attack itself. Anxiety about it happening again — in many cases, triggering more panic attacks — is categorized as panic disorder.
3. OCD: Obsessive-compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by “obsessions” (obtrusive unwelcome thoughts) and “compulsions” (repetitive behaviors). A repeated unwanted violent fantasy is a common example of an obsession. Compulsions — like repeatedly washing hands — are sometimes created in response to obsessions, but often they take on a life of their own — and cause more anxiety when they’re not carried out.
4. PTSD: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, used to be known as “combat fatigue,” due to its prevalence in soldiers returning from war. Now mental health professionals recognize that PTSD can affect anyone who has lived through a severe accident or traumatic situation. Even though the trauma has passed, the person still feels like they’re in danger. Symptoms can include frightening flashbacks, depression, and constant feelings of being ready for an attack.
Treating Anxiety Disorders
Generalized anxiety disorder is usually treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or psychotherapy, though antidepressants or antianxiety medications have proven useful in some cases. CBT focuses on the negative thought patterns that lead to negative behaviors, ultimately replacing them with more positive, realistic ones.
Stress management techniques and support from friends and family are also critical to overcoming anxiety disorders. Though even best-case scenarios will still see the return of symptoms from time to time, most people see substantial gains from treatment and a loving support system.