Warren: With anxiety to the point where it’s part of a disorder — let’s say generalized anxiety disorder, mostly characterized by anxiety and worry about a whole bunch of different situations — we would treat it by teaching a patient about the role of worry in creating the symptoms and how to manage the worry. That sometimes involves challenging unrealistic thoughts or working to increase one’s ability to tolerate uncertainty, which is a big part of anxiety.
If left untreated, anxiety may worsen to the point at which the person's life is seriously affected by panic attacks and by attempts to avoid or conceal them. In fact, many people have had problems with friends and family, failed in school, and/or lost jobs while struggling to cope with this condition. There may be periods of spontaneous improvement in the episodes, but panic attacks do not usually go away unless the person receives treatments designed specifically to help people with these symptoms.
A panic attack is a response of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The most common symptoms include trembling, dyspnea (shortness of breath), heart palpitations, chest pain (or chest tightness), hot flashes, cold flashes, burning sensations (particularly in the facial or neck area), sweating, nausea, dizziness (or slight vertigo), light-headedness, hyperventilation, paresthesias (tingling sensations), sensations of choking or smothering, difficulty moving, and derealization. These physical symptoms are interpreted with alarm in people prone to panic attacks. This results in increased anxiety and forms a positive feedback loop.
So, if anxiety has so many negative effects, why is it relatively common? Many scientists who study anxiety disorders believe that many of the symptoms of anxiety (e.g., being easily startled, worrying about having enough resources) helped humans survive under harsh and dangerous conditions. For instance, being afraid of a snake and having a "fight or flight" response is most likely a good idea! It can keep you from being injured or even killed. When humans lived in hunter-gatherer societies and couldn't pick up their next meal at a grocery store or drive-through, it was useful to worry about where the next meal, or food for the winter, would come from. Similarly avoiding an area because you know there might be a bear would keep you alive —worry can serve to motivate behaviors that help you survive. But in modern society, these anxiety-related responses often occur in response to events or concerns that are not linked to survival. For example, seeing a bear in the zoo does not put you at any physical risk, and how well-liked you are at work does not impact your health or safety. In short, most experts believe that anxiety works by taking responses that are appropriate when there are real risks to your physical wellbeing (e.g., a predator or a gun), and then activating those responses when there is no imminent physical risk (e.g., when you are safe at home or work).
Benzodiazepines, including alprazolam (Xanax) and lorazepam (Ativan), may be prescribed for patients to help with more acute symptoms of panic disorder. These drugs alleviate symptoms quickly and have fewer side effects other than drowsiness, but frequent use may lead to dependence on the medication. They are not recommended for patients who have alcohol or substance abuse issues.
Antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are commonly used as first-line treatments for anxiety. Less-commonly used — but effective — treatments for anxiety disorders are older classes of antidepressants, such as tricyclic antidepressants and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs).
When people are confronted with unpleasant and potentially harmful stimuli such as foul odors or tastes, PET-scans show increased bloodflow in the amygdala. In these studies, the participants also reported moderate anxiety. This might indicate that anxiety is a protective mechanism designed to prevent the organism from engaging in potentially harmful behaviors.
The symptoms of a panic attack may cause the person to feel that their body is failing. The symptoms can be understood as follows. First, there is frequently the sudden onset of fear with little provoking stimulus. This leads to a release of adrenaline (epinephrine) which brings about the fight-or-flight response when the body prepares for strenuous physical activity. This leads to an increased heart rate (tachycardia), rapid breathing (hyperventilation) which may be perceived as shortness of breath (dyspnea), and sweating. Because strenuous activity rarely ensues, the hyperventilation leads to a drop in carbon dioxide levels in the lungs and then in the blood. This leads to shifts in blood pH (respiratory alkalosis or hypocapnia), causing compensatory metabolic acidosis activating chemosensing mechanisms which translate this pH shift into autonomic and respiratory responses. The person him/herself may overlook the hyperventilation, having become preoccupied with the associated somatic symptoms.
Panic disorder involves repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes (panic attacks). You may have feelings of impending doom, shortness of breath, chest pain, or a rapid, fluttering or pounding heart (heart palpitations). These panic attacks may lead to worrying about them happening again or avoiding situations in which they've occurred.
The avoidance behaviors associated with agoraphobia can greatly restrict a person’s life. People with agoraphobia often develop groups of feared situations that are related. For example, many people with agoraphobia become extremely upset and uncomfortable in areas where there are many people in a confined space. This fear may limit them from standing in line at a store, going to a movie theater, or traveling on an airplane. Other commonly feared situations for people with agoraphobia include forms of travel, being alone, and open spaces. These fears may result in an inability to even leave their homes.
Repeated and persistent thoughts ("obsessions") that typically cause distress and that an individual attempts to alleviate by repeatedly performing specific actions ("compulsions"). Examples of common obsessions include: fear that failing to do things in a particular way will result in harm to self or others, extreme anxiety about being dirty or contaminated by germs, concern about forgetting to do something important that may result in bad outcomes, or obsessions around exactness or symmetry. Examples of common compulsions include: checking (e.g., that the door is locked or for an error), counting or ordering (e.g., money or household items), and performing a mental action (e.g., praying).
Before SSRIs and SSNRIs became available, medications from the group known as the tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) were often used to address panic disorder. Although TCAs have been found to be equally effective in treating panic attacks, SSRIs and SSNRIs have been proven to be safer and better tolerated. Therefore TCAs are used much less often than they were previously.
If you believe you are suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, your doctor will perform a variety of physical exams as well as mental health checks. You might first go to your doctor complaining of constant headaches and trouble sleeping. After he or she rules out any underlying medical conditions that are causing your physical symptoms, s/he may refer you to a mental health specialist for further diagnosis. Your mental health specialist will ask you a series of psychological questions to get a better understanding of your condition. To be clinically diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, your doctor and/or mental health provider will assess the length of time you have been suffering from excessive worry and anxiety, your difficulty in controlling your anxiety, how your anxiety interferes with your daily life, and if you are experiencing fatigue, restlessness, irritability, muscle tension, sleep problems, and difficulty concentrating.
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Anxiety cannot increase forever and you cannot experience peak levels of anxiety forever. Physiologically there is a point at which our anxiety cannot become any higher and our bodies will not maintain that peak level of anxiety indefinitely. At that point, there is nowhere for anxiety to go but down. It is uncomfortable to reach that peak but it is important to remember this anxiety will even out and then go down with time.
People often fear the worst when they're having an anxiety attack. Most of the time, there’s no underlying physical problem, such as a real heart attack. But you should get the medical all clear if you have repeat anxiety attacks, just to be sure you don’t need additional treatment. Then find a cognitive behavioral therapist with experience treating anxiety to help you through.
Anxiety disorders fall into a set of distinct diagnoses, depending upon the symptoms and severity of the anxiety the person experiences. Anxiety disorders share the anticipation of a future threat, but differ in the types of situations or objects that induce fear or avoidance behavior. Different types of anxiety disorder also have different types of unhealthy thoughts associated with them.
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 actions or behaviors associated with their anxiety will be negatively evaluated by others, leading them to feel embarrassed. This worry often causes people with social anxiety to avoid social situations. Social anxiety disorder can manifest in a range of situations, such as within the workplace or the school environment.