We all experience occasional anxiety. It’s normal to feel nervous when you’re having problems on the job, you have a big decision to make, or you’re about to take an important test. But anxiety disorders aren’t like these temporary worries and “butterflies.” When you have an anxiety disorder, the anxiety is always there, and can continue to worsen as time goes by. This can interfere with everyday life, affecting personal relationships, and your performance at work or school.
Examples of such conditions include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder. These are common in people of all ages: Approximately 18% of adults and 25% of adolescents ages 13 to 18 in the U.S. either do or will at some point experience anxiety, says the National Institute of Mental Health. About 4% of adults and almost 6% of teenagers have anxiety disorders considered to be severe.
Though there are many types of anxiety disorders, research has shown that the majority share similar underlying traits. Sufferers tend to easily become emotionally overwhelmed, and have especially negative reactions to upsetting feelings and situations. Trying to cope with those negative reactions by avoiding triggers is a common mechanism, but can be counterproductive, and actually create more anxiety.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
People with generalized anxiety disorder are in a constant state of worry or feelings of anxiousness. They excessively fixate on an array of problems, such as health or financial concerns, and may harbor a general feeling that the worst is always about to happen. This can go on for months, and come with several symptoms.
Signs and symptoms
- Frequent restlessness, feeling on edge or tightly wound
- Becoming easily fatigued
- Inability to concentrate, mind sometimes going blank
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
- Sleep issues (problems falling or staying asleep, restless/unsatisfying sleep)
Those who suffer with panic disorder have recurrent and unexpected panic attacks, which are characterized by a sudden onset of overwhelming fear that can involve pounding, racing or palpitations of the heart, trembling, shaking and sweating. There may also be shortness of breath and the feeling of being smothered or choked, and a sensation of looming peril.
Signs and symptoms
- Sudden, repeated episodes of intense fear
- Feeling of a loss of control
- Constant worry about and anticipation of the next attack
- Avoidance of the scenes of previous attacks
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder (or social phobia) is marked by a fear of social or performance situations in which sufferers expect to feel embarrassed, assume they will offend others, or think they may be rejected or harshly judged.
Signs and symptoms
- Anxiety about being around people and having to talk to them
- Feeling self-conscious and worried about being humiliated, rejected, embarrassed, or possibly offending others
- Being terrified of being judged by other people
- Worrying for days or weeks before an event
- Avoiding anywhere there will be people
- Difficulty making and keeping friends
- Blushing, shaking or sweating in the presence of others
- Feeling nauseous when other people are around
Phobias involve intense fear of particular objects (spiders, heights, or thunder, for example) or situations (such as fear of flying) that can be distressing and intrude on everyday life.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is characterized by uncontrollable, nonstop thoughts and feelings (obsessions) and repetitive rituals/routines (compulsions). For instance, a fear of germs could cause repeated hand washing, or someone may tie their shoelaces over and over until they “get it right.”
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can result from serious physical or emotional trauma such as a crime, accident, war, or natural disaster. Symptoms include nightmares about and flashbacks of the traumatic event, and disturbing thoughts that disrupt the sufferer’s everyday life for months or years afterwards.
Anxiety disorders can impair your ability to function at your job, in school, and in various social situations, as well as negatively affect your relationships with friends and family. Luckily, effective treatments do exist.
The first step to diagnosing an anxiety disorder is often a visit to your primary physician. Some health issues (such as an overactive thyroid or low blood sugar) and medications can mimic or aggravate an anxiety disorder. A comprehensive mental health evaluation is also beneficial, as anxiety disorders can go hand-in-hand with related conditions, such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Treatment normally consists of psychotherapy (“talk therapy”), medication, or a combination of both, but research shows therapy is usually more effective because medication only treats the symptoms, not the problem itself—therapy teaches you tools to deal with your anxiety. It can help you get to the root causes of your concerns and fears, learn how to be calmer, look at troublesome situations in new, less upsetting ways, and develop useful coping and problem-solving techniques. Psychotherapy is most effective when tailored to your specific anxieties and needs. One typical but temporary “side effect” is feeling uncomfortable when thinking about confronting your fears.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Anxiety
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most common type of therapy used to treat anxiety disorders. It helps you to recognize negative patterns and distorted views you may have of the world and yourself. This includes two main components:
- Cognitive: How negative thoughts (cognitions) cause anxiety
- Behavioral: How you behave and react in triggering situations
The basic premise is that your own perception of a situation—not the situation itself—determines how you feel about it. So imagine that you have a big job interview. Think about three different situations that might arise during the interview, and then consider how those thoughts would affect your emotions.
Making anxiety therapy work for you
Overcoming an anxiety disorder takes time. There’s no quick fix, and you need to be committed to it. Since therapy makes you face your fears instead of avoiding them, you might feel worse before you feel better. But it’s crucial to stay the course. Stick to your treatment plan and do what your therapist advises. If it starts to feel like recovery isn’t happening fast enough, keep reminding yourself that therapy will be beneficial in the long term—if you see it through.
You can also supplement your therapy by making healthy life choices. Whether it’s physical activity or your social life, everything you do can support your anxiety recovery. Ensure success by making a conscious effort to incorporate relaxation, physical energy, and a positive mindset into your daily life.
Do your homework. To overcome anxiety, you must first understand it. That’s where research comes in. Education and research alone can’t cure an anxiety disorder, but the more you know, the more you’ll get out of your therapy.
Stay connected to other people. Being lonely and isolated contributes to anxiety. Reaching out to others helps to avoid this. Go out of your way to spend time with friends, find a support or self-help group, and open up to someone you trust.
Kick the unhealthy habits. Staying physically active relieves tension and anxiety, so don’t skip the exercise. Don’t turn to alcohol and drugs to cope, and do your best to avoid stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, which can worsen anxiety.
Shed that stress. Figure out what causes stress in your life, and think of ways to reduce it. Avoid people who trigger your anxiety, learn to say no to obligations and responsibilities you don’t feel able to fulfill, and make some time for fun and relaxation every day.