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January 25, 2023 • read

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Anxiety disorders: types, symptoms, causes, and treatment

If you’re the anxious type, you know that anxiety can transform a small hill into what seems like a mountain. Stress at work, stress from school, emotional trauma, and financial worries are all difficult situations that can cause your anxiety to spike.

Mental health professionals on Maple can help with anxiety, and you can talk to them from the comfort of your home. Our virtual care platform provides access to Canadian-licensed doctors and healthcare providers, including mental health therapists and mental health physicians. These providers are available online at a time that works for you.

What’s anxiety?

Anxiety is the human body’s built-in warning system. When you find yourself in an unsafe situation, your body tries to protect you from danger by flooding your system with adrenaline, hormones, and chemicals. This increases your breathing rate and pulse, making you more alert and allowing your body to respond quickly to an intense, unexpected situation.

This fight-or-flight stress response helped our ancestors react faster to life-threatening dangers, like extreme weather or threatening predators. Today, anxiety continues to play a protective role. For example, one study of anxiety in teens found that teenagers with high anxiety levels had fewer accidents in early adulthood than those with lower anxiety levels. One factor behind these results is that people with higher anxiety levels were more likely to avoid high-risk activities.

Though anxiety can have positive benefits, it also has a negative side. Stressful or traumatic life events and other challenges can cause anxiety to become chronic, excessive, or difficult to control. Eventually, anxiety can begin interfering with daily life and produce mental and physical symptoms.

If anxiety is preventing you from socializing, studying, working, or managing normal tasks, you may have anxiety problems. You’re not alone — anxiety is one of the most common mental health disorders.

What’s an anxiety disorder?

Having anxiety on and off isn’t abnormal. But, an anxiety disorder is different — it’s the feeling of intense symptoms of anxiety for a short or extended period of time that can prevent you from doing daily activities. It’s estimated that three million Canadians aged 18 or older have an anxiety or mood disorder, making anxiety disorders one of the most common types of mental health disorders across the country.

So, what exactly causes anxiety disorders? Genetics plays a strong role since some families have more family members with anxiety disorders. Environment is another factor — if somebody experiences a stressful or traumatic life event, has a long-term health condition, or misuses drugs or alcohol, there’s a higher chance they’ll have an anxiety disorder.

What are the types of anxiety disorders?

The list of anxiety disorders is extensive, but the most common types of anxiety disorders are:

  • Specific phobias, like fear of heights, water, spiders, or dogs
  • Social anxiety disorder, which is triggered by the fear of being judged or viewed negatively by others
  • Panic disorder, which involves repeated episodes of extreme anxiety and fear
  • Agoraphobia, a disorder in which you tend to avoid places or situations that you perceive as unsafe or inescapable
  • Generalized anxiety disorder, which involves excessive and persistent anxiety about common activities or events
  • Separation anxiety disorder, which usually develops in childhood following separation from a parental figure

Can you have multiple anxiety disorders?

Yes, you absolutely can have more than one anxiety disorder. In fact, people with an anxiety disorder are more likely to have other anxiety disorders or major depressive disorder. For example, you might experience symptoms of social anxiety at the same time as having separation anxiety. Or, you might experience two types of anxiety disorders at completely different times in your life.

That’s where treatment comes in. Speaking to a therapist or receiving prescription medication from a mental health physician can make handling any type of anxiety disorder, especially multiple, much easier. A mental health provider knows how to diagnose anxiety disorders and what to do to treat them so that life becomes much smoother.

What are the complications of anxiety disorders?

Even though anxiety disorders are common, there can be serious consequences if left untreated. Complications include:

  • Poor quality of life
  • Cardiovascular changes, increasing the risk of heart disease
  • Impaired immune function
  • Digestive function changes
  • Depression
  • Chronic pain conditions
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicidal thoughts

Common signs and symptoms of anxiety

Primary anxiety disorder symptoms are usually irrational or excessive fear and worry. But there are other signs of an anxiety disorder and they can be physical, mental, or behavioural. Here’s a breakdown of the most common symptoms in each category.

Physical:

  • Pounding heart
  • Sweating
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach
  • Breathing quickly
  • Dizziness
  • Frequent urination or diarrhea
  • Muscle tension or twitches
  • Trembling or shaking

Mental:

  • Irritability
  • Nervousness
  • Panic
  • Sense of impending danger, panic, or doom
  • Feeling out of touch with reality

Behavioural:

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling nervous or tense
  • Insomnia
  • Avoiding certain places or social situations

Some people experience anxiety attacks, also known as panic attacks. The exact causes of anxiety attacks aren’t always known. These episodes of intense panic or terror are sometimes tied to an obvious trigger, like a big public speech you’ll have to give. Anxiety attacks can also occur suddenly and without warning.

An anxiety attack usually reaches its peak within 10 minutes and rarely lasts more than 30 minutes. During this period, you can experience symptoms like:

  • An overwhelming sense of fear
  • Heart palpitations
  • Numbness of limbs
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sense of choking
  • Trembling

These symptoms can feel terrifying and even immobilize you. The very good news is these symptoms can be improved and even resolved with treatment.

Diagnosis and treatment for anxiety disorders

While there is an anxiety disorder test you can take as a starting point, it’s good to check in with a doctor first to make sure your symptoms of anxiety aren’t caused by a medical condition, like low blood sugar, asthma, or a thyroid problem. Your anxiety could also be caused by medication or herbal supplements you’re taking. Once external causes have been ruled out, the next step is to book an appointment with a therapist who has experience treating anxiety disorders.

Most anxiety disorders are treated with therapy, anxiety disorder medication, or a combination of the two. One of the most effective forms of treatment for anxiety disorders is cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). This form of therapy helps you identify and challenge irrational beliefs and negative thinking patterns that are feeding your anxiety.

If you’re considering taking anxiety medication, make sure to weigh the risks and benefits. Anxiety medications can cause side effects and form habits, so talking to a psychiatrist about your different options will help you choose the best anxiety medication for your needs.

Can anxiety disorders be prevented?

Unfortunately, you can’t prevent an anxiety disorder. But, you can prevent symptoms to help you better cope with anxiety disorders. These tips can help you find routine and comfort in your day-to-day life.

1. Exercise regularly

Working out helps your body release endorphins, which improve your mood while lowering stress hormones like cortisol. On most days, you should aim for about 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. But, even five minutes of exercise can have positive effects.

2. Get enough sleep

Try to get seven to nine hours of quality sleep every night, as sleep deprivation can fuel anxious feelings and thoughts.

3. Practice relaxation techniques

Mindfulness meditation and relaxation techniques, like deep breathing, can increase feelings of relaxation and emotional well-being.

4. Consume less caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol

A stimulant like caffeine can amplify your anxiety, so try reducing the number of cups you drink per day. Or, cut out caffeine completely.

While cigarettes can have a calming effect on a short-term basis, nicotine is a strong stimulant that can rev up anxiety. Alcohol can also worsen anxiety by disrupting your brain’s chemical balance.

5. Seek help

Talking to someone outside your circle, like a mental health professional, can give you a different viewpoint and the right toolkit to keep your anxiety symptoms in check.

How Maple can help with anxiety disorders

The sad thing about anxiety is it can lead you to skip fun activities. While avoidance can provide temporary relief, a better way of dealing with an anxiety disorder is to seek treatment. Many people with anxiety disorders also suffer from depression, as anxiety and depression often appear together in patients. Treatment can make a big difference.

If you’re experiencing anxiety issues, anxiety at work, or anxiety attacks, make sure to seek help, as anxiety disorders are highly treatable. You can speak to a mental health physician about the types of medication for anxiety disorders such as sertraline (Zoloft), venlafaxine (Effexor), or buspirone (Buspar).

Or, you may choose to speak with a mental health therapist for talk therapy, which you can do from your phone, tablet, or computer. Once you better understand how your anxiety works, you can take concrete steps to reduce your symptoms and reclaim your confidence in life.

This blog was developed by our team and reviewed by a medical professional.

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