It is completely normal and even healthy to feel anxious once in a while. Most people experience anxiety in the days or moments leading up to a big decision, a job interview, a first date, or final exam. However, some people may be so overwhelmed by feelings of fear and worry that they have a difficult time functioning day-to-day. If you feel that your anxiety is out of your control, you might have an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are mental illnesses that present with symptoms that range from mildly distressing to chronically debilitating. Anxiety disorders are serious illnesses caused by chemical imbalances in the brain: they are not a result of poor parenting or personal weakness. Medical help is available for people dealing with extreme anxiety.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
General Anxiety Disorder
This is a psychological disorder in which the patient suffers from extreme worry, even when there is little or no sensible reason to feel anxious.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Patients with social anxiety feel extraordinarily anxious during routine social interactions or in anticipation of social situations. They may feel excessively self-conscious, and feel unrealistically afraid that they will embarrass themselves in front of others.
Patients with panic disorder suffer from sudden, repeated episodes of terror. Referred to as a panic attack, these episodes may strike for little or no reason, without warning, and may be accompanied by profuse sweating, hyperventilation, heart palpitations, and chest pain. Often, patients report feeling as though they are choking or having a heart attack.
A phobia is an unreasonable and intense fear of some object, person, or situation. Common phobias include the fear of flying, public speaking, or being enclosed in a small, tight space, such as an elevator. Although many people may feel a twinge of nervousness at these situations, a person with a phobia may panic when confronted with their fear and may be unable to function in relatively normal situations.
Symptoms of Anxiety Disorder
During an episode of anxiety, a person with anxiety disorder may experience:
- Intense feelings of panic and fear
- Clammy or sweaty palms or feet
- Numbness or tingling
- Increased or irregular heartbeat
- Hyperventilation/shortness of breath
- Restlessness and uneasiness
- Tense muscles
- Cotton mouth
- Dizzy spells
Causes of Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety disorders stem from complex physiological and environmental factors. The human brain learns by reacting and adapting to its environment. A physical or psychological trauma, or long-term stress, can cause the brain to re-wire itself, changing the ways signals are passed from one part of the brain to another. This can alter or transform the brain’s ability to process emotions, such as fear, in response to day-to-day situations.
Studies have shown that anxiety disorders may have a genetic component, making them more likely to run in families. A significant trauma – such as witnessing a violent crime or surviving a horrific accident – may trigger an anxiety disorder in people who are genetically prone to them.
Diagnosing Anxiety Disorders
If you believe that you or a loved one may be suffering from an anxiety disorder, contact your health care provider. Your doctor will conduct a physical exam and a personal interview in order to understand your symptoms.
If your doctor suspects you may have an anxiety disorder, he or she may refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist for further evaluation and treatment.
Treatment for Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders can be effectively treated with one or a combination of several approaches. Your psychologist or psychiatrist will work with you to determine the best course of treatment for you.
Diet and lifestyle changes
Eating healthy foods, getting plenty of sleep, and exercising regularly can often help patients balance their emotional state and reduce anxiety. Avoid caffeine and other stimulating supplements or foods, such as chocolate.