If you’re worried sick about the red “check engine” light that just flashed on your car’s dashboard or the speech your boss just asked you to give at next month’s regional conference, you’re engaging in normal, everyday worrying. You may be able to borrow money from a relative to fix the car and, when your talk is over, you’ll breathe a huge sigh of relief and move on.
But if you have worries that overwhelm your mind and cause you to become anxious, invading your thoughts and sometimes producing unpleasant physical symptoms, you may have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are diagnosed if worries are long lasting (six months or longer) and interfere with normal activities and ability to enjoy life.
The constellation of anxiety disorders affects 40 million adults in the United States, or one in six people. Anxiety is one of the most frequent complaints that prompt a doctor’s visit. And it comes in multiple forms.
Generalized anxiety disorder involves feeling excessively anxious over an extended period of time, affecting your ability to focus at work, school and in everyday situations, often having a negative effect on personal relationships.
Generalized anxiety has many possible symptoms, including: feeling stressed and emotionally on edge; finding it difficult to concentrate; persistent and excessive worry, despite knowing you worry too much; becoming easily exhausted and irritable; headaches, stomach aches and unexplained pain; excessive sweating; feeling breathless and faint; needing to go to the bathroom frequently.
Adults may worry excessively about their job, finances, health and their children.
Obsessive compulsive disorder: Needing to carry out specific rituals over and over and being bothered by repeated unwanted thoughts such as sex or religion are signs of obsessive compulsive disorder. Repeated hand washing until hands are chapped and raw, obsessively checking that the door is locked or the stove turned off, or organizing your work in a specific order and needing to restart the sequence if the order is interrupted can consume hours of every day.
Performing the ritual may bring temporary relief, but the need to repeat it resurfaces, creating an anxiety loop that leaves you exhausted and consumes your life.
Panic disorder causes sudden and intense fear, despite the fact that there is no apparent threat. Panic attacks cause multiple physical symptoms, including a racing heartbeat, shaking, sweating and shortness of breath. Many people fear they are having a heart attack and are overwhelmed by a feeling of impending doom.
Fear of losing control and of another attack occurring causes many people to avoid places where panic attacks have occurred in the past, often leading to social isolation.
Social anxiety disorder involves fear of social situations. Fear of being judged by others, of making a fool of oneself publicly, or of offending others causes those with social anxiety to avoid social interactions. Physical symptoms include blushing and sweating when around others and feeling nauseous and shaky. People tend to have a hard time making and keeping friends and to isolate themselves.
If you have anxiety that is interfering with your peace of mind and quality of life, make an appointment with your doctor or a mental health professional. Your doctor will do a health history and a physical exam to see if there are any physical problems causing your symptoms and may refer you to a mental health specialist, either a psychiatrist or a psychologist.
Although there is no cure for anxiety disorders, they can be treated, most often with cognitive behavioral therapy, medication or a combination of the two. Self-help techniques such as meditation and mindfulness are also often effective.
Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches patients to change negative thought patterns and learn new ways of reacting to anxiety-producing situations. Patients learn to identify, confront and neutralize negative thoughts
Anti-anxiety drugs include benzodiazepines, which are considered first-line treatment for GAD. Antidepressants are also effective in treating anxiety. The beta-blockers propranolol and atenolol are most effective in treating the physical effects of anxiety: they slow the heart and help control shaking and blushing.
Anxiety disorders are common. If you are worried that you might have one, make an appointment with your doctor or a mental health professional.
Rupp is care coordinator for Long Term Care Authority of Enid Aging Services.