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July 21, 2020 • read
Everything you need to know about 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 stress are all difficult situations that can cause your anxiety to spike. But what is anxiety? Can it be managed?
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 flight-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 levels of anxiety were more likely to avoid high-risk activities.
Anxious people have also been found to be more empathetic. Some become excellent leaders who understand how things can go wrong, know how to solve problems on the fly, and take a cautious, disciplined approach to decision-making.
Downsides of having anxiety
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 producing physical and mental 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 in North America.
The most common types of anxiety disorders are:
- Specific phobias, like fear of heights, water, spiders, or dogs.
- Social anxiety disorder, which is when 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, a disorder usually developed in childhood following separation from a parental figure.
Signs of an anxiety disorder
The primary symptom of an anxiety disorder is usually irrational or excessive fear and worry. Other anxiety disorder symptoms include:
- Trouble concentrating
- Pounding heart
- Feeling nervous or tense
- Upset stomach
- A sense of impending danger, panic, or doom
- Breathing quickly
- Frequent urination or diarrhea
- Muscle tension or twitches
- Trembling or shaking
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 speech you’ll have to give in public. 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
- Shortness of breath
- Sense of choking
These symptoms can feel terrifying and even immobilize you. The very good news is these symptoms can be improved and even resolved with treatment.
Anxiety diagnosis and treatment
Start by seeing a doctor to make sure your anxiety isn’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, 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.
Anxiety and self-help
Many anxiety symptoms can be reduced with lifestyle modifications. These tips can help you find routine and comfort in your day-to-day life:
- 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.
- Get enough sleep. Try to get 7-9 hours of quality sleep every night, as sleep deprivation can fuel anxious feelings and thoughts.
- Practice relaxation techniques. Mindfulness meditation and relaxation techniques, like deep breathing, can increase feelings of relaxation and emotional well-being.
- 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.
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 with work, or anxiety attacks, make sure to seek help as anxiety disorders are highly treatable. You can speak to our psychiatrists and therapists from anywhere using 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.