Anxiety is a typical reaction to stress and can be beneficial in some situations, alerting us to dangers and helping us prepare and pay attention. Occasional anxiety is certainly a regular part of life. We might feel anxious when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test or making an important decision. But anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear, and they differ from ordinary feelings of nervousness or anxiousness. For a person with the disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. Anxiety refers to an anticipation of a future concern and is more associated with muscle tension and avoidance behaviour. Fear is an emotional response to an immediate threat and is more associated with a fight or flight reaction – either staying to fight or leaving to escape danger. Anxiety disorders can cause people to try to avoid situations that trigger or worsen their symptoms, and in the process job performance, school work and personal relationships can be affected. There are several different types of anxiety disorders: separation anxiety, selective mutism, specific phobia, social anxiety, panic, agoraphobia, generalised anxiety, and substance or medication-induced anxiety. Anxiety disorders are the most common of mental disorders and affect nearly 30 percent of adults at some point in their lives. But they are treatable.
The causes of anxiety disorders are currently unknown but likely involve a combination of factors including genetic, environmental, psychological and developmental. Specific factors include shyness or behavioral inhibition in childhood, being female, being divorced or widowed, exposure to stressful life events in childhood and adulthood, anxiety disorders in close biological relatives, parental history of mental disorders, having few economic resources, and elevated afternoon cortisol levels in the saliva (specifically for social anxiety disorder).
The first step is to see your doctor to make sure there is no physical problem causing the symptoms. If an anxiety disorder is diagnosed, a mental health professional can work with you on the best treatment. Unfortunately, many people with anxiety disorders don’t seek help. They don’t realise that they have an illness that has effective therapies. Although each anxiety disorder has unique characteristics, most respond well to two types of treatment: psychotherapy and medications. These procedures can be given alone or in combination. Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), a kind of talk therapy, can help a person learn a different way of thinking, reacting and behaving to help feel less anxious. Medications will not cure anxiety disorders but can give significant relief from symptoms. The most commonly used drugs are anti-anxiety medications (generally prescribed only for a short period) and antidepressants. Beta-blockers, used for heart conditions, are sometimes used to control physical symptoms of anxiety. There are some things people can do to help cope with symptoms of anxiety disorders and make treatment more effective. Stress management techniques and meditation can be helpful. Support groups can provide an opportunity to share experiences and coping strategies. Learning more about the specifics of a disorder and helping family and friends to understand better can also be helpful. Avoid caffeine, which can worsen symptoms, and check with your doctor about any medications.
Credit: American Psychiatric Association, National Institute of Mental Health.