Anxiety is defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” Like stress, anxiety can be a useful tool that motivates us to get things done or lets us know when a situation is potentially dangerous. People normally feel anxiety before speaking in public, going to an important interview, or other similar activities. Anxiety elevates the heart rate, increases muscle tension, and releases adrenaline. When a person feels frequent or extreme anxiety, it is considered an anxiety disorder.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is defined as frequent, persistent worry that may not be from a perceived source. People with GAD frequently “scan” for danger when there is no source of danger present. They often worry excessively about money, relationships, or work. Long-term effects of GAD include irritability, muscle soreness, difficulty sleeping, chronic indigestion, and fatigue.
Panic disorder is characterized by repeated panic attacks. During a panic attack, the sufferer feels at least four bodily or cognitive symptoms: heart palpitations, dizziness, feelings of unreality, nausea, hyperventilation, tunnel vision, trembling, feelings of dread, sweating, etc. The symptoms occur suddenly and usually dissipate in a matter of minutes. A person who has had a panic attack may exhibit behavioral changes in anticipation of another attack. Panic disorder with agoraphobia is characterized by extreme fear of public places or of leaving one’s home.
Social anxiety disorder is when a person has severe anxiety surrounding social gatherings or meeting new people. This usually stems from low self-esteem or perfectionism surrounding social interaction. Social skills training or interpersonal therapy can help reduce social anxiety.
Specific phobias consist of anxiety surrounding certain objects or scenarios, such as heights or spiders. These can lead to panic attacks or changes in behavior due to anticipation of interacting with their feared object. Phobias are treated through immersion therapy, in which the person is gradually exposed to the object of their fear slowly in a controlled environment.
Treatment for an anxiety disorder includes therapy and may involve medications. A class of anti-depressants called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors are recommended for long-term treatment, while benzodiazepines are used “as needed” when a person is having an anxious episode. Therapy aims to identify and disrupt thoughts that lead to anxiety, develop coping skills, and enable the patient to avoid anxiety-provoking situations.
Children can be diagnosed with mental disorders just as adults can. Anxiety disorders are more difficult to diagnose in children as the symptoms often manifest physically and parents will have difficulty separating symptoms from other disorders. Children are treated with family therapy that involves their caregivers and may be prescribed medication at a lower dose than those taken by adults.
Anxiety is co-occuring with substance abuse disorders, as people with anxiety will sometimes self-medicate to deal with their symptoms. Depressants such as alcohol or certain prescription drugs can have a calming effect that is desirable to those with anxiety. Many people with anxiety claim that marijuana is an effective treatment, but there is not enough research on its effects to support those claims.