Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and can be beneficial in some situations. It can alert us to dangers and help us prepare and pay attention. Anxiety disorders differ from normal feelings of nervousness or anxiousness and involve excessive fear or anxiety. Anxiety disorders are the most common of mental disorders and affect a significant percent of adults at some point in their lives. But anxiety disorders are treatable, and several effective treatments are available. Treatment helps most people lead normal productive lives. There are different types of anxiety disorders including: Generalized Anxiety Disorders (GAD), Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety/Social Phobias, Agoraphobia, Separation Anxiety, and Selective Mutism. All these anxiety disorders have one thing in common: persistent, excessive fear or worry in situations that are not threatening.
People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) display excessive anxiety or worry, most days for at least 6 months, about several things such as personal health, work, social interactions, and everyday routine life circumstances. The fear and anxiety can cause significant problems in areas of their life, such as social interactions, school, and work.
Generalized anxiety disorder symptoms may include:
- Feeling restless, wound-up, or on-edge
- Being easily fatigued
- Having difficulty concentrating; mind going blank
- Being irritable
- Having muscle tension
- Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
- Having sleep problems, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, restlessness, or unsatisfying sleep
People with panic disorder have recurrent unexpected and sudden feelings of terror or panic attacks. Panic attacks are sudden periods of intense fear that come on quickly and reach their peak within minutes often mistaken as a heart attack. Attacks can occur unexpectedly or can be brought on by a trigger, such as a feared object or situation.
During a panic attack, people may experience some of these:
- Heart palpitations, a pounding heartbeat, or an accelerated heartrate
- Sweating, Dizziness
- Trembling or shaking, Chills
- Sensations of shortness of breath, smothering, or choking, chest pain
- Feelings of impending doom or death
- Fear of loss of control
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness
- Numbness or tingling sensation
- Feeling of unreality or detachment
People with panic disorder often worry about the next attack and will take desperate measures to prevent future attacks by avoiding places, situations, or behaviors they associate with panic attacks. Worry about panic attacks, and the effort spent trying to avoid attacks, cause significant problems in various areas of the person’s life, including the development of agoraphobia (see below).
A phobia is an intense fear of—or aversion to—specific objects or situations. Although it can be realistic to be anxious in some circumstances, the fear people with phobias feel are out of proportion to the actual danger caused by the situation or object.
People with a phobia:
- May have an irrational or excessive worry about encountering the feared object or situation
- Take active steps to avoid the feared object or situation
- Experience immediate intense anxiety upon encountering the feared object or situation
- Endure unavoidable objects and situations with intense anxiety
There are several types of phobias and phobia-related disorders:
Specific Phobias (sometimes called simple phobias): People who have a specific phobia have an intense fear of, or feel intense anxiety about, specific types of objects or situations. Some examples of specific phobias include the fear of:
- Specific animals, such as spiders, dogs, or snakes
- Receiving injections
- Blood, injuries
- Nature such as thunderstorms or lightening
Social anxiety disorder (previously called social phobia): People with social anxiety disorder have a general intense fear of, or anxiety toward, social or performance situations. They worry that their actions or behaviors will be negatively evaluated, misjudged, or scrutinized by others, leading them to feel embarrassed. This worry causes them to avoid social situations. Social anxiety disorder can manifest in a range of situations, such as work, school, or other important areas of activities.
Agoraphobia: People with agoraphobia have an intense fear for situations and places that may cause them to feel trapped, powerless, or embarrassed and often experience an intense fear of two or more of the following situations:
- Using public transportation such as buses, trains
- Open spaces such as bridges, the mall, parking garages
- Being in enclosed spaces such as the elevators
- Standing in line or being in a crowd
- Being outside of the home alone
People with agoraphobia often avoid these situations, in part, because they think it might be impossible to escape if they have panic attacks or other embarrassing symptoms. In the most severe form of agoraphobia, an individual can become housebound.
Separation anxiety disorder: Separation anxiety is often thought of as something that only children deal with; however, adults can also be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder. People who have separation anxiety disorder have fears about being parted from people to whom they are attached. They often worry that some sort of harm or something untoward will happen to their attachment figures while they are separated. This fear leads them to avoid being separated from their attachment figures and to avoid being alone. People with separation anxiety may have nightmares about being separated from attachment figures or experience physical symptoms when separation occurs or is anticipated.
Selective mutism: A somewhat rare disorder associated with anxiety is selective mutism. Selective mutism occurs when people fail to speak in specific social situations despite having normal language skills. Selective mutism usually occurs before the age of 5 and is often associated with extreme shyness, fear of social embarrassment, compulsive traits, withdrawal, clinging behavior, and temper tantrums. People diagnosed with selective mutism are often also diagnosed with other anxiety disorders.
Treatment: The most common classes of medications used to combat anxiety disorders are anti-anxiety drugs (such as benzodiazepines), antidepressants, and beta-blockers. Psychotherapies such as relaxation therapies, cognitive behavioral therapies, stress management therapies and support group therapies.