Anxiety and fear are normal parts of life. People often feel anxious prior to taking a test, stepping on stage or walking down a darkened street. Normal anxiety can be useful because it makes you more alert and careful. Also, it usually ceases after you have overcome or avoided the situation that caused it.
For millions of Americans, anxiety does not go away and can worsen over time. These people suffer from anxiety disorders.
What Is an Anxiety Disorder?
Unlike mild, brief anxiety that is linked to a specific event, anxiety disorders last for at least six months and worsen without treatment. The anxiety places an undue amount of stress on the patient and often drives them to seek solace in illicit substances.
Substance abuse masks the signs of the anxiety disorder, making it harder to diagnose, and can make the symptoms even more severe over time.
Approximately 40 million adult Americans experience some form of anxiety disorder each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). This equates to 18 percent of the adult population in the United States. Fortunately, there are many capable facilities that diagnose and treat anxiety disorders.
There has been extensive research into anxiety disorders. Most experts have created subtypes to help differentiate between patients suffering from some form of prolonged anxiety. Common classifications of anxiety disorder include:
Panic disorder is signified by abrupt attacks of extreme terror that manifest physically with a strong heartbeat, weakness, excessive sweating and dizziness. While experiencing a panic attack, patients feel flush or chilled, and their hands may feel tingly or numb. They often complain of chest pain, nausea or a sense of being smothered. Psychologically, panic disorder causes a sense of altered reality, a feeling of imminent doom and a fear of losing control, the NIMH explains.
People suffering from panic attacks are afraid of all of these physical symptoms. They believe that they are having a heart attack or going insane. They are unaware of what is causing their anxiety and often worry greatly between attacks.
Panic attacks can occur at any time without an apparent stressor. Each attack generally lasts at least 10 minutes, with some symptoms lingering for much longer.
Panic disorder is almost two times more prevalent in women and affects around six million Americans. Episodes often start in late adolescence or early adulthood; however, many people don’t experience ongoing panic disorder. In fact, most people will only have one or two attacks and then will never be affected again. Other people, usually those with an inherited genetic predisposition, are at risk of suffering from multiple panic attacks throughout their lives.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a subtype of anxiety disorder characterized by the constant presence of unwanted thoughts and the need to repeat certain behaviors. Patients with OCD let these factors disrupt their daily lives. What makes matters worse is that most people with OCD know that their behavior makes no sense, but they are powerless to stop themselves, FamilyDoctor.org explains.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder was once thought very rare. However, more thorough reporting and better diagnostic tools have made identifying the disease much easier. Approximately three million Americans between the ages of 18 to 54 suffer from OCD. That accounts for 2.3 percent of this age group, and both men and women are affected equally.
Obsessions are ideas or impulses that repeatedly impact the patient’s mind. Most OCD patients find these thoughts disturbing and do not wish to have them; however, the disease makes it impossible to ignore the obsessions. These thoughts start off mild and only occur sporadically, but over time they become more frequent until the patient is overwhelmed.
The fear and anxiety caused by these obsessions often drive people to make up certain actions, which follow specific rules or guidelines, that are supposed to suppress the obsessive thoughts. These actions are called compulsions or compulsive rituals.
Some common compulsions are turning the lights on and off again repeatedly, extreme hand washing, and locking a door over and over again. People with OCD find that performing these compulsions relieves their anxiety and stress.
A phobia is defined as an overwhelming, illogical fear of an object or situation that poses no real threat to the subject.
Unlike transient fears, phobias last a long time, cause profound physical and psychological effects, and prevent patients from functioning normally.
Most phobias are named after the object or situation that instills fear in the patient. There are three main categories of phobias:
1) Specific phobias. This is when the patient is afraid of a specific object or situation. Examples include fear of animals (zoophobia), water (hydrophobia), visiting the dentist, or being in a high place (acrophobia).
2) Social phobia. People with social phobia are perceived as shy, but the anxiety goes much deeper than that. These patients are extremely self-conscious, fear public scrutiny and ridicule, and have an intense fear in even the most common social situations, according to the Mayo Clinic.
3) Fear of open spaces (agoraphobia): Agoraphobia is a complication of experiencing one or more panic attacks. Patients develop a fear of being in any place they cannot easily leave if they were to suffer a panic attack. Most patients will attempt to avoid such places altogether and some agoraphobic people may never leave their homes.
Most phobias produce similar symptoms in individuals. These include:
Irrepressible anxiety when exposed to the feared situation
Intense need to avoid whatever it is the patient fears
Knowledge that the fear is unreasonable but still unable to control it
Powerless to function normally due to fear
Physical reactions like sweating, rapid heart beat and difficulty breathing
Unease when just thinking about the feared object
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is diagnosed when a patient exhibits a pattern of excessive worry and anxiety over a variety of events. The anxiety occurs prior to the feared event and extends for a long time after the activity is over.
The chief symptom of GAD is the constant presence of tension, despite the absence of a rational cause.
The patient’s anxiety drifts from one problem, such as financial matters, to another problem, such as relationship issues. The patient does little to solve these problems, but rather incessantly talks and worries about them. Even if the patient realizes the fear and anxiety are unnecessary, he or she still has difficulty ignoring or controlling the fear.
People with GAD also have difficulty concentrating, fatigue, irritability, restlessness, paranoia and insomnia. They may also manifest physical symptoms like muscle tension, tremors, headaches, nausea and diarrhea. All of the symptoms worsen over time, and if the condition goes untreated, the patient will be unable to perform the basic daily tasks associated with normal behavior.
Effects of Anxiety Disorders
People with anxiety disorders initially feel that their symptoms are strange and confusing.
Some patients find the physical symptoms are especially worrisome, while others are terrified of the psychological symptoms associated with anxiety disorders, TeensHealth reports. The constant fear and anxiety often make patients feel overwhelmed and as if they are often unable to function in life.
Severe anxiety can drive patients to substance abuse. The abuse of alcohol, illicit drugs and prescription drugs are common complications of anxiety disorders. In more serious cases, patients will develop other physical issues, such as heart problems, that can be life threatening.
Family members dealing with loved ones with anxiety disorders often feel confused and lost. They have no idea how to handle their loved one’s fear. Sometimes, family members or friends may feel as if they are the cause of the anxiety. Primary caregivers – usually parents or spouses – are often unable to complete their daily routine because of the symptoms exhibited by their loved one. This can add unnecessary tension to an already stressful situation.
The Need for Treatment
Proper treatment is the best way to prevent the damaging effects associated with anxiety disorders.
Most cases of severe anxiety require the help of a medical professional. A combination of medication and therapy is often the best course of action. Treatment helps alleviate patients’ anxiety and provides them with the psychological tools needed to cope with their fears.
Often, the hardest step in treatment is getting the person suffering from anxiety disorder to accept treatment. They may feel that admitting their illness will cause others to ridicule and insult them. Or they may be too embarrassed and ashamed of their disease, and are therefore reluctant to talk to medical personnel.
In these cases, friends or relatives may decide to stage an intervention. A properly organized intervention – often moderated by a trained interventionist – can be very effective in helping patients overcome their initial fear and seek treatment. Interventions also help family members understand the motivations and pathology of their loved one’s disease.
If you’d like more information on staging an intervention for your loved one, contact us today. We can answer your questions and help you take this first step in helping your loved one achieve a healthy, balanced life. Call now.