Anxiety is part of life. Most of us feel anxious or worried when we’re dealing with new or challenging situations such as a big exam, a new job or a first date or when we or our loved ones are dealing with the unknown.
Anxiety is your mind and body’s response to stress, pressure or perceived threats. That response can actually be a positive thing, keeping you alert, focused or motivated to jump to action if needed.
But for some individuals those feelings can become constant and overwhelming to the point that they can interfere with daily life, causing suffering or dysfunction. The response comes all the time and is not consistent with the situations. When that occurs you may be dealing with an anxiety disorder. There is also a strong link between anxiety and depression: The two sometimes overlap.
Anxiety disorders can look quite different for each individual, but common symptoms may include the following:
• Feeling excessively worried, having an impending sense of doom or irrational fear
• Inability to focus or concentrate due to worry or fear
• Being hypervigilant for signs of danger
• Feeling restless or tense
• Feeling constantly on edge or jumpy
• Increased heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, stomach issues, dizziness, headaches or fatigue
Each year more than 3 million people deal with an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It is the most commonly reported mental health issue.
There are six main types of anxiety disorders: generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias, social anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
With generalized anxiety disorder there is persistent and excessive, generalized worry or a feeling that something bad is going to happen. It usually manifests in physical symptoms such as stomach problems, insomnia, restlessness or fatigue.
A panic disorder is characterized by repeated or sudden panic “attacks,” which can also create more worry that you may experience another one. The attacks include a feeling of sudden and intense fear and may include increased heart rate, palpitations, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest and feelings of being smothered or out of control.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is described as having unwanted thoughts or behaviors that feel uncontrollable or impossible to stop. Many of us joke about having OCD when describing certain habits or behaviors. But with the true disorder the obsessions or compulsive behaviors interfere with the ability to function.
A phobia is a specific fear of an object or activity that is exaggerated or unrealistic. Examples may include fear of flying, fear of animals or fear of heights. The fear can cause a person to go to extreme measures to avoid whatever makes them afraid.
Social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, occurs when an individual fears being embarrassed, humiliated, judged or rejected in social situations. A common example is a fear of public speaking or performance anxiety. That fear can cause an individual to avoid social situations or worry for days before or after an event or situation. It may create difficulties in making and keeping friends.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a more extreme disorder that can occur after a life-threatening or extremely traumatic event. It can show in recurring flashbacks or nightmares, hypervigilance or being in a constant state of fight-or-flight mode.
Common treatments for anxiety disorders may include psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, stress management techniques, self-help or support groups and medications. A combination of treatments can prove to be most effective.
Keep in mind that anxiety is a normal part of everyday life. You may be worried about a particular issue or situation or even dealing with a busy schedule. Not everyone who is experiencing worry has an anxiety disorder.
Take care of yourself if you are stressed by connecting with others, eating healthy, exercising, getting plenty of relaxation and sleep, practicing mindfulness and monitoring caffeine and alcohol. Those things can all go a long way to getting you back on track. There are also common physical problems that can imitate an anxiety disorder or make it worse. Check with your doctor and reach out if you are struggling.