Anxiety is a normal human emotion that everyone experiences at times when faced with a problem, such as worrying about money, family relationships, a problem at work or school, taking an exam, or making an important decision. Anxiety disorders, however, can cause such distress that it interferes with the person’s ability to function with everyday tasks.
For persons with anxiety disorders, worry and fear are constant, excessive, overwhelming and can be debilitating.
Anxiety disorders include the following types of anxiety:
• generalized anxiety disorder;
• panic disorder;
• post-traumatic stress disorder;
• obsessive-compulsive disorder; and
• social phobias.
Generalized anxiety disorder involves extreme and unrealistic worry about things, even when there is little or no reason to worry about.
Panic disorder involves sudden attacks of fear without warning that lasts for several minutes. It occurs repeatedly. Panic attacks occur at unpredictable times and some of the symptoms resemble that of the person having a heart attack.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition that can develop following a traumatic and terrifying event such as a physical or sexual assault, a tragic loss of a loved one, serving in combat or as a result of a disaster. People with PTSD often have lasting and frightening thoughts and memories of the event that affects their ability to function.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a condition involving constant disturbing thoughts or fears that cause the person to perform certain rituals or routines. The disturbing thoughts are called obsessions and the rituals are called compulsions. An example is a person with an unreasonable fear of germs constantly washes his or her hands.
Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, involves overwhelming worry and strong feelings of being judged by others and of being embarrassed. This fear often gets in the way of going to school or work or doing other everyday things.
Specific phobias are intense fear of a specific object or situation, such as snakes, heights or flying. The fear is usually inappropriate to the situation and may cause the person to avoid common everyday situations.
General symptoms of anxiety disorders include the following:
• muscle tension and inability to be calm and relax;
• unexplained bodily pains and feeling tired all the time;
• problems sleeping and nightmares;
• difficulty concentrating;
• feelings of panic, fear and uneasiness;
• uncontrollable, obsessive thoughts;
• ritualistic behaviors, such as repeated hand washing, checking if the door is locked;
• cold or sweaty hands and/or feet;
• shortness of breath and palpitations;
• numbness or tingling in the hands or feet;
• trouble controlling their constant worries;
• dry mouth and trouble swallowing; and
• using the bathroom a lot.
The exact cause of anxiety disorders is unknown, but like some forms of mental illness, personal weakness or poor upbringing are not the causes. Researchers have found that several parts of the brain are involved in fear and anxiety.
Combination of factors
As research continues on mental illness, it is becoming clear that many of these disorders are caused by a combination of factors including changes in the brain and environmental stress. Trauma or significant events may trigger an anxiety disorder in people who have an inherited susceptibility to developing the disorder.
By learning more about fear and anxiety in the brain, scientists may be able to create better treatments.
If you, or someone you know, is experiencing any of these anxiety symptoms, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional about it. A thorough exam is necessary to make sure another physical problem isn’t causing the symptoms.
Anxiety disorders are generally treated with psychotherapy, medication or both, and early identification and treatment is essential.
In helping children cope early on with fear and anxiety, encourage them to ask questions and to talk about fears they may have. Listen to what they say. Communicate with your children in simple ways that they can understand.
In addressing death, be honest and tell them the person has died rather than has “gone to sleep,” or children may become afraid of going to sleep. Provide comfort and assurance that address their specific fears.
It is OK to admit you can’t answer all their questions and then find someone who can help.