Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome. It is a normal and often healthy emotion. However, when a person regularly feels disproportionate levels of anxiety, it might become debilitating and interfere with daily activities.
Anxiety is a general term that covers several disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobia, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder or panic attacks, and separation anxiety disorder.
Types of Anxiety
There are several types of anxiety disorders, each with their own specific symptoms and characteristics. Some of the most common types include:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): This type of anxiety is characterized by excessive, unrealistic worry and tension, even if there is little or nothing to provoke it.
- Panic Disorder: This type of anxiety is characterized by sudden and repeated attacks of intense fear, accompanied by physical symptoms such as a rapid heartbeat, sweating, and shaking. It is also called panic attacks.
- Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD): This type of anxiety is characterized by an excessive and unrealistic fear of social situations and of being judged or evaluated by others.
- Specific Phobias: This type of anxiety is characterized by an excessive and unrealistic fear of a specific object or situation, such as heights, closed-in spaces, or animals.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): This type of anxiety is characterized by persistent psychological distress that occurs after a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, or military combat.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): This type of anxiety is characterized by persistent, uncontrollable thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviours (compulsions).
- Separation Anxiety Disorder: characterized by excessive anxiety about separation from home or attachment figures, such as parents.
It’s worth noting that these are not the only types of anxiety disorders, and that some people may experience more than one type of anxiety disorder at the same time.
Causes of Anxiety
There are several causes of anxiety, including:
- Genetics: Anxiety disorders tend to run in families, suggesting a genetic component.
- Brain chemistry: Imbalances in certain neurotransmitters, the chemicals that carry signals in the brain, may play a role in anxiety disorders.
- Environmental factors: Trauma, abuse, or neglect can lead to anxiety disorders.
- Medical conditions: Chronic illness, such as heart disease, diabetes, or thyroid problems, can also cause anxiety.
- Substance abuse: Alcohol and drug use can contribute to the development of anxiety disorders.
- Life events: Divorce, death of a loved one, loss of a job, or other significant life changes can trigger anxiety.
- Personality: People with certain personality types may be more prone to anxiety disorders.
Anxiety can also be a side effect of certain medications or medical conditions or a symptom of a number of other conditions.
Symptoms of Anxiety
The symptoms of anxiety can vary depending on the type of anxiety disorder, but some common symptoms include:
- Excessive, unrealistic worry and tension
- Restlessness or feeling on edge
- Difficulty concentrating
- Muscle tension
- Sleep problems (insomnia)
- Rapid heartbeat or palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Nausea or stomach upset
- Avoiding certain situations or activities in order to reduce anxiety
- Persistent thoughts or memories of traumatic events
- Recurrent nightmares or flashbacks
- Compulsive behaviours or rituals
- Excessive fear or panic when faced with certain objects or situations
These symptoms can also be caused by other conditions or medications, and that some people may experience more or less symptoms than others.
Diagnosis of Anxiety
The diagnosis of an anxiety disorder typically begins with a visit to a healthcare professional, such as a primary care physician or a mental health professional. The healthcare professional will conduct a physical examination and ask about the person’s symptoms, medical history, and any medications they are currently taking.
A diagnosis of an anxiety disorder is made based on the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) or International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10).
The healthcare professional may also use diagnostic tools such as self-report questionnaire or rating scales like the Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale (HAM-A) or the Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI) to evaluate the symptoms of anxiety, their intensity and frequency.
To rule out other possible causes of the symptoms, the healthcare professional may also order laboratory tests, such as blood or urine tests, or imaging studies, such as an MRI or CT scan.
A healthcare professional may also refer the person to a specialist, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or clinical social worker, for further evaluation and treatment.
The process of diagnosing an anxiety disorder can be complex and involve multiple steps. A correct diagnosis is therefore important for getting the right treatment, as different types of anxiety disorders may require different types of treatment.
Treatment of Anxiety
The treatment for anxiety disorders typically involves a combination of therapy and medication. The specific treatment plan will depend on the type and severity of the anxiety disorder, as well as the individual’s personal preferences and needs.
- Therapy: Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective forms of therapy for anxiety disorders. It focuses on changing the patterns of thinking and behaviour that contribute to the person’s anxiety. Other forms of therapy such as exposure therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) can also be helpful in treating anxiety disorders.
- Medication: Antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication can be used to reduce symptoms of anxiety. The most commonly prescribed antidepressants for anxiety are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), and fluvoxamine (Luvox). Other medications such as benzodiazepines, beta blockers, and buspirone can also be used to treat symptoms of anxiety.
- Relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and yoga can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and promote overall well-being.
- Lifestyle changes: Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and getting enough sleep can also help reduce symptoms of anxiety.
- Support groups: Joining a support group can be helpful for people with anxiety disorders, as it allows them to connect with others who are going through similar experiences.
Treatment for anxiety disorders may take time and patience, and it’s important to work closely with a healthcare professional to find the right treatment plan. In some cases, a combination of therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes may be needed to manage symptoms of anxiety effectively.
Prevention of Anxiety
Preventing anxiety disorders or preventing the recurrence of an anxiety disorder may involve the following steps:
- Managing stress: Identifying and managing sources of stress in your life can help prevent the development or recurrence of an anxiety disorder.
- Getting enough sleep: Aiming for 7-9 hours of sleep per night can help reduce the risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
- Eating a healthy diet: Eating a diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and low in sugar and processed foods can help promote overall well-being and reduce the risk of anxiety.
- Exercise: Regular physical activity can help reduce stress and anxiety, as well as improve overall mental and physical health.
- Avoiding alcohol and drugs: Excessive alcohol and drug use can increase the risk of developing an anxiety disorder, as well as worsen existing symptoms.
- Maintaining a social support network: Having a strong support network of family and friends can provide a sense of security and help prevent the development or recurrence of an anxiety disorder.
- Practicing relaxation techniques: Regularly practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and yoga can help reduce stress and anxiety.
- Continual treatment: Regularly seeing a therapist or counsellor, or taking medication as prescribed, even if you’re feeling better, can help prevent relapse and maintain progress.
All anxiety disorders can be prevented, and early diagnosis and treatment are important for managing symptoms and reducing the risk of complications.