When we’re anxious, the body produces a stress response. The stress response is designed to give us an extra ‘boost’ of awareness and energy when we think we could be in danger. The stress response causes a number of physiological, psychological, and emotional changes in the body that enhance the body’s ability to deal with a perceived threat – to either fight or flee, which is the reason the stress response is often referred to as the ‘fight or flight response.’
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.
Experiencing a chronic medical condition or severe or frequent illness can also increase risk for anxiety disorders, as well as dealing with significant illness of a family member or loved one. Given that several medical conditions have been linked to significant anxiety, in some cases a physician may perform medical tests to rule out an underlying medical condition. For instance, thyroid disease is often characterized by experiencing significant symptoms of anxiety. Menopause, heart disease, and diabetes have also been linked to anxiety symptoms. Additionally, drug abuse or withdrawal for many substances is characterized by acute anxiety, and chronic substance abuse can increase risk for developing an anxiety disorder. Anxiety can also be a side effect of certain medications. Experiencing significant sleep disturbances, such as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, may also be a risk factor for developing an anxiety disorder.
Dr. John Grohol is the founder, Editor-in-Chief & CEO of Psych Central. He is an author, researcher and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues -- as well as the intersection of technology and human behavior -- since 1992. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member and treasurer of the Society for Participatory Medicine. He writes regularly and extensively on mental health concerns, the intersection of technology and psychology, and advocating for greater acceptance of the importance and value of mental health in today's society. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.
About 12% of people are affected by an anxiety disorder in a given year and between 5-30% are affected at some point in their life. They occur about twice as often in women than they do in men, and generally begin before the age of 25. The most common are specific phobia which affects nearly 12% and social anxiety disorder which affects 10% at some point in their life. They affect those between the ages of 15 and 35 the most and become less common after the age of 55. Rates appear to be higher in the United States and Europe.
Post-traumatic stress disorder -- or PTSD -- was considered to be a type of anxiety disorder in earlier versions of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But in 2013, PTSD was reclassified as its own condition. It describes a range of emotional reactions caused by exposure to either death or near-death circumstances (such as fires, floods, earthquakes, shootings, assault, automobile accidents, or wars) or to events that threaten one's own or another person's physical well-being. The traumatic event is re-experienced with fear of feelings of helplessness or horror and may appear in thoughts and dreams. Common behaviors include the following:
Mindfulness involves spending time focusing on the present moment and using a nonjudgmental stance (things are not good or bad, they just are). This may sound straightforward but it can be tricky as our mind often wanders. Try to spend some time each day focusing on a single activity for 10 minutes. For example, focus on the experience of breathing: noticing the physical sensations that you have, the sound of your breath, the feeling of your chest rising and falling as you breathe, the feeling of air entering and leaving your lungs, etc. Try your best to keep your mind focused on these sensations. If you notice your mind wandering, gently redirect it back to the exercise. Engaging in these exercises on a regular basis can help you to feel emotionally centered. Check out websites, apps, and books for more information on mindfulness and guided mindfulness exercises.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by uncontrollable anxious thoughts or behaviors. Individuals with OCD are plagued by persistent, unwelcome thoughts and images or by the urgent need to engage in certain rituals. Some OCD sufferers may only have obsessive thoughts without the related rituals. The disturbing thoughts or images (e.g., fear of germs) are called obsessions, and the rituals performed to try to get rid of them (e.g., hand washing) are called compulsions. For example, people who are obsessed with germs may wash their hands excessively. The individual is not happy to be performing the ritual behaviors but finds this to be the only way to get temporary relief from the obsessive thought.
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There is evidence for panic disorder-like diagnoses across cultures, such as ataque de nervios in Latin American communities. Research has shown that African Americans experience more functional impairment (i.e., impact on one's ability to complete daily activities) than non-Latino white Americans. This is not an exhaustive list of cultural factors related to panic disorder, but it does highlight cultural differences that may affect the presentation of panic disorder as well as individual differences in the interpretation of panic symptoms (Asnaani, Gutner, Hinton, & Hofmann, 2009; Hofmann & Hinton, 2014; Lewis-Fernández, et al., 2010).
An evolutionary psychology explanation is that increased anxiety serves the purpose of increased vigilance regarding potential threats in the environment as well as increased tendency to take proactive actions regarding such possible threats. This may cause false positive reactions but an individual suffering from anxiety may also avoid real threats. This may explain why anxious people are less likely to die due to accidents.
The degree of accompanying stress response and its physiological, psychological, and emotional changes are directly proportional to the degree of anxiety. For example, if you are only slightly concerned, such as being slightly nervous about meeting someone new, the body produces a small degree stress response. The small degree stress response can be so slight that you don’t even notice it.
Only 16, Caroline, had her first panic attack a year ago. Her mother was dropping her off at her summer job at a local school when, without warning, a full-blown panic attack engulfed her. “My heart started racing and my body felt so hot. I started to sweat and shake uncontrollably. My vision became distorted and my body felt limp, like a wet noodle,” she says. For 20 minutes, until the panic attacked passed, Caroline refused to get out of the car. Her mother didn’t know what to do.
In order to manage threatening situations, humans have evolved to experience a "fight or flight" response. As part of this response, when humans are confronted with a dangerous situation, their body mobilizes by sending blood away from their extremities (e.g. hands and feet) and into the major muscles, producing adrenaline, and increasing heart rate so that we are better equipped to fight off danger.
The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, in The Concept of Anxiety (1844), described anxiety or dread associated with the "dizziness of freedom" and suggested the possibility for positive resolution of anxiety through the self-conscious exercise of responsibility and choosing. In Art and Artist (1932), the psychologist Otto Rank wrote that the psychological trauma of birth was the pre-eminent human symbol of existential anxiety and encompasses the creative person's simultaneous fear of – and desire for – separation, individuation, and differentiation.
As is true for other mood and anxiety disorders, the use of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI's; e.g.., Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft), Benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax, Lorazepam), and Selective Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRI's; e.g., Cymbalta, Effexor, Pristiq) are common medical treatments for panic disorder. Additionally, D-cycloserine is a medication that is now being explored as a way to enhance effects of CBT (e.g., Hofmann et al., 2013). These medications may have side effects and taking them can lead to tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, and dependence, so it is important that you consult with a physician before starting or stopping these medications. There is evidence that taking one of these medications in addition to receiving behavioral therapy (e.g., CBT) can significantly benefit patients with panic disorder, although seeking psychotherapy in itself is largely effective (Arch et al., 2017).
Some people with anxiety disorders might benefit from joining a self-help or support group and sharing their problems and achievements with others. Internet chat rooms might also be useful, but any advice received over the internet should be used with caution, as Internet acquaintances have usually never seen each other and what has helped one person is not necessarily what is best for another. You should always check with your doctor before following any treatment advice found on the internet. Talking with a trusted friend or member of the clergy can also provide support, but it is not necessarily a sufficient alternative to care from a doctor or other health professional.