Anxiety Disorders and Anxiety Attacks
Everyone has probably gone through an anxiety-inducing moments. Situations like changing jobs, being fired or laid off, having to make a presentation, going on a first date, going for a job interview, and so on can trigger anxiety. This is perfectly normal.
Sometimes, however, your anxiety response might extend beyond whatever situation triggered it. For instance, your anxiety might get triggered by an upcoming job interview, but then you find yourself still feeling anxious a week after the job interview.
This anxiety might become so bad that it starts interfering with your ability to perform your day to day activities.
If this happens, this could be a sign that you are dealing with an anxiety disorder or an anxiety attack.
In this article, we are going to explain what anxiety disorders and anxiety attacks are, how to recognize the signs of both, and what to do if you find yourself dealing with anxiety disorders and anxiety attacks.
WHAT IS AN ANXIETY DISORDER?
Anxiety is the body’s natural reaction to situations it perceives as dangerous. Anxiety in turn triggers the fight or flight response whose aim is to help you deal with the dangerous situation either by fighting or by fleeing from the threat. In such situations, anxiety is actually a good thing.
It makes you alert and focused, spurs you to take action to deal with the threat, and gives you the motivation you need to deal with difficult situations.
Sometimes, however, you might find yourself remaining in this state of anxiety for way too long – even when there is no obvious threat or any situation that requires you to engage your fight or flight response.
Being in this aroused state for extended periods of time can take its toll on both your mind and body.
It interferes with your ability to interact normally with other people or even perform simple activities that you normally perform without much thought. Once it starts interfering with your daily life, your anxiety has probably morphed into an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are quite common. According to the WHO, one in every 13 people in the world suffers from an anxiety disorder. Anxiety affects about 18.1% of the American population.
SYMPTOMS OF ANXIETY DISORDER
There are many varieties of anxiety disorders, and therefore, the symptoms will vary from one person to the next depending on the anxiety disorder they are experiencing.
Sometimes, even people experiencing the same anxiety disorder might have different symptoms depending on the severity of their anxiety, as well as their personal responses to extreme anxiety.
That said, there are some symptoms that are common among most people suffering from an anxiety disorder. These include:
This is probably the most common symptom of anxiety disorder. Someone with an anxiety disorder will be in a constant state of worry, even when there is nothing to be worried about.
In some cases, there might actually be something to be worried about, but the amount of worry will not be proportionate to the cause of the worry.
For worrying to be considered excessive, it needs to be difficult to control and needs to have occurred on most days for a period of six months or more.
The worrying also needs to be so severe that it makes it difficult for you to focus on daily activities.
Like I mentioned earlier, anxiety is the body’s natural reaction to potentially stressful situations.
Therefore, when you feel anxious, your body triggers the fight or flight response, which in turn starts preparing your mind and body to deal with the potential threat.
Your pulse starts racing, your senses become heightened, blood circulation is minimized in non-essential functions, such as your digestive system, you become sweaty, and so on.
Generally, you become agitated like someone preparing for a fight, even if there is no obvious threat. People with anxiety disorders might remain in this state of agitation for extended periods of times, and this can make it difficult for them to concentrate on their daily tasks.
Someone suffering from an anxiety disorder might also tend to feel restless or on edge. They don’t feel comfortable being still or relaxing. They feel an urge to constantly move if they are to maintain their sanity.
Restlessness is especially common among children and teenagers experiencing anxiety disorders. According to this study by researchers from John Hopkins Department of Psychiatry and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, restlessness was reported as the main symptom in 74% of children who had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
While restless might be less common in adults, if you find yourself feeling restless for the better part of six months, this could be indicator that you are dealing with an anxiety disorder.
A constant feeling of fatigue could also be a sign that someone is suffering from an anxiety disorder, especially if it is accompanied by one or more of the other symptoms described here. For some, the fatigue is chronic, while for others, the fatigue comes after an anxiety attack.
While fatigue has been shown to be a sign of anxiety disorder, psychiatrists are yet to establish whether the fatigue occurs due to the other symptoms of anxiety disorder, such as muscle tension and sleeplessness, or whether it is caused by the hormonal effects of extended anxiety.
It’s also good to note that fatigue can also be a symptom of many other medical conditions, therefore, on its own, it cannot be used to diagnose anxiety disorder.
People suffering from an anxiety disorder also report finding it hard to concentrate.
One study of 157 children and teens between the ages of 7 and 18 who had been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder found that more than two thirds of the participants reported finding it difficult to concentrate.
Another similar study conducted on 175 adults found that 90% of them found it difficult to concentrate. The more severe their anxiety, the harder it was for them to concentrate.
According to some studies, the difficulty in concentration is due to the fact that anxiety can have negative impacts on working memory, which is responsible for holding information we need on short-term basis. This is why people going through periods of high anxiety might experience decreased performance.
It’s also good to note that finding it hard to concentrate could also be an indicator of other medical issues such as depression or attention deficit disorder, and therefore, it should not be used to solely diagnose anxiety disorder.
Someone suffering from an anxiety disorder might also find themselves being excessively irritable.
In one study involving over 6,000 adults, the researchers found that 90% of the participants, all of whom had been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, reported feeling highly irritable whenever their anxiety was at its peak.
The high levels of irritability among those suffering from anxiety disorders can be attributed to the fact that anxiety leads to a heightened level of arousal and excessive worrying.
If you find your muscles feeling tense for days on end, this could be another sign that you are suffering from an anxiety disorder. However, doctors and psychiatrists are yet to establish the relationship between anxiety and muscle tension.
There are even claims that muscle tension exacerbates feelings of anxiety, rather than being caused by them.
However, these claims are still unsubstantiated. However, psychiatrists have found that administering muscle relaxation therapy is an effective way of reducing worry in people suffering from anxiety disorders.
A lot of people suffering from anxiety disorders find it hard to fall or stay asleep. Many will wake up in the middle of the night and find it very difficult to go back to sleep. While insomnia and anxiety disorders are closely linked, the relationship between the two has not been established.
Actually, some doctors believe that insomnia could be a contributing factor for anxiety disorder, while others believe that it is anxiety that causes the insomnia. Some studies have shown that people who experienced insomnia as children have a higher chance of developing anxiety disorders. At the same time, treating anxiety disorders has been shown to improve the quality of sleep.
Apart from the above, other signs and symptoms that could be indicators of anxiety disorder include:
- Irrational, unshakeable fears
- Avoiding normal, everyday situations because they make you anxious
- A feeling that danger or catastrophe is just around the corner
- Constantly watching out for imminent danger
- Being constantly tense and jumpy
TYPES OF ANXIETY DISORDERS
There are many types of anxiety disorders, including:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
People suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) become so crippled by their feelings of worry and fear that something bad will happen that they are unable to perform their day to day activities normally.
The worst thing about GAD is that most of the time, someone suffering from GAD does not even know the cause of their worry. They just have this feeling of dread from nowhere. In many cases, their anxiety leads to physical symptoms like fatigue, stomach upsets, insomnia, restlessness, and so on.
According to this study, GAD is most common among people under the age of 65, especially those who have a low socioeconomic status, those who are single, or those who have several other stressors in life. Factors like alcohol and smoking problems can also lead to increased risk of suffering from GAD.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
This is an anxiety disorder that leads to recurring and seemingly unstoppable ideas, thoughts, and obsessions that give someone the compulsion to do something repetitively.
For instance, someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder might feel the need to wash their hands over and over, with a feeling that something bad might happen if they do not do that. Alternatively, someone with OCD might have a recurring worry about something. For instance, you might find yourself constantly worrying that you did not turn off your oven, and so on.
Phobias and Irrational Fears
Phobias are exaggerated or unrealistic fears of specific things, situations, activities, or objects that do not present any actual danger. Some common phobias include the fear of heights, fear of being in enclosed spaces (claustrophobia), fear of flying, fear of spiders, and so on.
People suffering from extreme phobias will do whatever it takes to avoid whatever they are afraid of, and in some cases, this can negatively affect their ability to engage in day to day activities.
Social Anxiety Disorder
This disorder is caused by an extreme fear of being humiliated in public or being perceived negatively by other people. People with social anxiety disorder appear to be extremely shy.
Depending on the severity of their disorder, some people might actually avoid social situations altogether. Some of the symptoms of social anxiety disorder include:
- Being constantly worried that others are scrutinizing or judging you.
- Feeling fearful or anxious whenever you think about an upcoming social situation.
- Avoiding social situations because of your anxiety.
- Constantly worrying about embarrassing yourself in front of others.
- Low self-esteem
- High self-criticism
You might be surprised to learn that social anxiety disorder is very common.
According to this study, about 12% of adults in the United States have experienced social anxiety disorder at some point in life.
Social anxiety disorder develops in early childhood in most cases, with about half of those who have suffered from the disorder having it diagnosed before the age of 11, and 80% having the disorder diagnosed before their 20th birthday, according to this study.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
This is an extreme anxiety disorder that develops following an experience that was life-threatening or extremely traumatic. People experiencing PTSD usually find themselves having nightmares or flashbacks to the incident that left them traumatized.
PTSD attacks are also usually accompanied by other symptoms such as sweating, being on edge, and hypervigilance.
When PTSD attacks, the person might also try as much as possible to avoid anything that reminds them of the incident. They might also withdraw from other people.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
It is perfectly normal for a child to feel a little bit anxious whenever they are separated from their parent or someone close to them.
Sometimes, however, this anxiety might continue for extended periods of time, or it might become so severe that the child is unable to perform normal day to day activities, such as going to school. If this happens, there is a high chance that the child is suffering from separation anxiety.
WHAT ARE ANXIETY ATTACKS
Anxiety attacks are a type of anxiety disorder that is characterized by sudden and very intense episodes of extreme fear or panic. In most cases, anxiety attacks appear without warning and without any obvious trigger.
In some cases, however, they might be triggered by something, such as thinking about the presentation you have to make, getting stuck in an elevator, and so on. It is estimated that about 22% of adults in the USA will experience at least one anxiety attack in their lives.
The worst thing about anxiety attacks is that they are usually accompanied by very frightening physical symptoms, such as shortness of breath or a choking sensation, a racing heartbeat, nausea, trembling or shaking, hot flashes or chills, chest pain and heart palpitations, a feeling that you are about to lose control or go crazy, feeling like you are about to pass out, extreme sweating, dizziness, and so on.
Actually, someone experiencing an anxiety attack for the first time might even worry that they are having a heart attack. In most cases, an anxiety attack will last just a few minutes, rarely exceeding 30 minutes.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE SUFFERING FROM ANXIETY DISORDERS
The good thing is that anxiety is a manageable condition, and in most cases, it is not even necessary to seek professional help to deal with your anxiety. Below are some self-help tips that can help you bring down your levels of anxiety.
- Connect with others: Being lonely or isolated at a time when you are going through anxiety or worry can elevate your anxiety or worry. Therefore, it is advisable to regularly connect with other people. Talking about your fears with people close to you can make the fears seem overwhelming. If you live in a place where you cannot easily meet up with friend or family, you can consider joining a support group. The point is to make sure you interact with other people in a meaningful way and get a chance to talk about your fears.
- Manage your stress levels: Stress is closely related to anxiety. The more stressed you are, the more likely you are to experience extreme anxiety. Therefore, if you find yourself constantly feeling anxious, try to remove some stressors from your life.
- Try relaxation techniques: Regularly practicing techniques that are meant to relax your body or calm your mind, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness meditation can help lower feelings of anxiety.
- Regular exercise: Exercising is a great way of dealing with stress and anxiety. The best part about exercise is that you do not even need lots of it for it to be effective. Simple exercises like walking, dancing, swimming, or jogging for at least 30 minutes three to four times a week are enough to lower your levels of anxiety.
- Get enough sleep: Not getting enough sleep can exacerbate your levels of anxiety, and therefore, it is important to ensure that you are getting enough sleep every night, which means at least eight hours of sleep.
- Reduce your intake of alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine: Stimulants like caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine can also heighten your levels of anxiety. Therefore, if you know that you are struggling with anxiety, you should consider reducing, or even completely cutting out your intake of these substances.
- Control your worrying: Very often, anxiety is caused by chronic worrying over things we sometimes have no control over. Putting a stop to your worrying will go a great deal in calming your anxiety. While controlling your worrying is not an easy thing to do, some things you can do to stop worrying include learning to be comfortable with uncertainty, challenging your anxious thoughts, creating a worry period, and so on.
WHEN TO SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP
For most people, the tips provided above will help you deal with your anxiety without the need to seek professional help. However, if you notice that your anxiety and fears have become so much that they are forcing you to disrupt your daily routine or causing your extreme distress, you need to seek professional help.
If your anxiety is accompanied by a lot of physical symptoms, you should see a doctor who will conduct a medical checkup to find out if there is an underlying medical condition behind your anxiety.
Sometimes, anxiety can be caused by medical conditions such as asthma, hypoglycemia, or a thyroid problem. Your doctor will also ask about any medications or drugs you are taking, since some of them can cause anxiety.
If the doctor ascertains that your anxiety is not as a result of an underlying medical condition, they will refer you to therapist who will diagnose the anxiety disorder you are suffering from, determine its causes, and then come up with a treatment plan.
Fortunately, most anxiety disorders can be easily treated with therapy and resolved within a short time.
The kind of treatment will depend on the kind of anxiety disorder you are experiencing, as well as its level of severity.
Some of the common approaches used to treat anxiety disorders include cognitive behavior therapy and exposure therapy.
In some cases, therapy alone might not be enough, in which case the medical professional might recommend a combination of therapy and medication.
Feeling anxious in certain anxiety-inducing situations is normal. If you experience anxiety for extended periods of time, however, or if your anxiety interferes with your ability to function normally, then this is a sign that you might be suffering from an anxiety disorder.
Some of the symptoms of anxiety disorders include excessive worrying, feeling agitated, restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, sleeplessness, and sleeplessness. Anxiety attacks, on the other hand, are characterized by sudden and very intense episodes of extreme fear or panic, accompanied by extreme physical symptoms.
Fortunately, you can manage your anxiety yourself by connecting with other people, eliminating stressors from your life, exercising regularly, trying relaxation techniques, getting enough sleep, reducing your intake of alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine, and so on.
If you notice that your anxiety is getting to a point where it is making it difficult for you to function normally, however, you should seek professional help.
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