In moderate amounts, anxiety is a normal, and even beneficial, psychological reaction that encourages people to do better and reach farther. Left unchecked though, anxiety can become excessive and debilitating trait that limits a person- keeping them from being able to live normal lives. Pathological anxiety comes in different forms including:
- General anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Panic disorder
- Posttraumatic stress disorder
- Social Phobia (or social anxiety disorder)
Together, these four disorders affect over 15% of the US population in any given year, accounting for the overwhelming majority of mental disorders that plague Americans.
Anxiety and Its Purpose and Effect on the Body
Anxiety is a survival instinct, meant to protect you from danger. When a person feels anxious, this triggers the release of fight or flight hormones such as adrenaline in the body. Adrenaline causes the heart to beat faster, carrying blood where it is needed. Breathing rate may also increase, to provide extra oxygen required for energy. An anxious person may suddenly become sweaty, to better enable the body to cool itself down. Sometimes, anxiety can also cause a dry sensation in the throat and mouth as the digestive system diverts blood to muscles that the body deems need it more. Senses are heightened and alertness is enhanced.
Once the reason for anxiety has subsided, other chemicals are released in the body to relax the muscles and return it to its equilibrium state.
Why is Anxiety an Issue?
The problem with anxiety is that it is a throwback to a time long past, when humanity needed to fend against attackers, fires, wild animals, and other forms of physical harm. Unfortunately, the subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between one form of harm and another, and thus causes a person to react in an almost identical way even when the threat isn’t physical. The end result is that feelings of anxiety may arise during public speaking, exams, visits to the dentist, driving tests or any other undesirable confrontation. In fact, anxiety’s debilitating symptoms may become more pronounced the less physical the activities are, as adrenaline’s effects on the body subside more slowly when there isn’t a physical outlet to express them through.
What is Severe Anxiety?
Anxiety can be classified as severe when it either continuously or intermittently plagues a person for long stretches of time, making it difficult to deal with everyday life. Severe anxiety may spiral into a self-feeding loop, where anxiety leads to feelings of powerlessness of loss of control, which in turn further fuels the anxiety. Sometimes, anxiety can lend strength to even stronger negative feelings such as an illusion of imminent madness or death.
What are Panic Attacks?
Panic attacks are an involuntary and exaggerated response to strong emotions such as fear, stress, or excitement. They may be the result of the self-feeding loop of severe anxiety. During such an attack, the victim may feel a host of overwhelming physical and psychological sensations including:
- Heightened heartbeat
- Chest pain
- Profuse sweating
- Breathing discomfort
- Shaking limbs
- Feelings of loss or despair
People who experience these attacks often describe them as terrifying. Many people report feeling as if they were they were going to die, blackout, go mad, or have a heart attack while in the middle of an attack.
The onset of an attack can come quickly and without warning. Symptoms usually take no more than 10 minutes to peak. Attacks can last anywhere between five and 20 minutes. Some individuals report having attacks as long as an hour each, but these prolonged attacks may usually be written off as several consecutive attacks, or a heightened and lingering feeling of anxiety after the initial attack.
The frequency of panic attacks is a largely subjective matter. Some people may experience one or two panic attacks across their entire lifetime. Others may have to deal with panic attacks on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis. Sometimes, the attacks have clear and logical reasons. Other times, the attacks may seem to come about randomly without any forewarning.
Attacks can even happen at night, waking the anxious person up from their sleep. Often, these nighttime attacks occur when the brain is subconsciously anxious, causing a state of heightened sensitivity and awareness to even the smallest changes in the body, which in turn lead the brain to needlessly sound the alarm and shift into fight or flight mode. These nighttime attacks are often scary and disorienting as there is little that the anxious person can do to prepare for them.
What Causes Anxiety?
Frequent anxiety attacks are usually experienced by individuals who are more worrisome. This could come about from past experiences, current circumstances, or inherent personality traits.
What sort of Past Experiences Lead to Anxiety?
A distressing past experience, especially one that rendered a person powerless to take action may lead the person becoming anxious. This anxiety stems from the fear of being powerless when facing a similar situation, leading to a state of distress.
How does Lifestyle Contribute to Anxiety?
Poor lifestyle habits such as an excess of caffeine, drug misuse, or excessive indulgence in sugar can sometimes lead to anxiety. Anxiety can also come about as a result of succumbing to workplace stress or exhaustion.
Can Medications Cause Anxiety?
Certain medications, such as:
- Asthma medicines
- Oral contraceptives
- Medicines containing amphetamines
- Blood pressure medication
- Thyroid medications
-have side effects that mimic or contribute to feelings of anxiety.
How Can Anxiety be Treated?
Because anxiety is intangible and caused by so many different things, there are a myriad host of treatments for anxiety. The first approach that most doctors prescribe is a broad self-help course or a group course that targets individuals who have anxiety conditions.
If self-help and group sessions fail to cure a person of anxiety, they may be given more intensive psychological sessions or medications. Oftentimes, a combination of the two is prescribed. Some of the most effective psychological treatments for anxiety are cognitive behavioral therapy and applied relaxation.
Medications include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), Preglabin, and benzodiazepines. Severe anxiety may call for the usage of more than one of these drugs simultaneously, always under the supervision of a specialized medical professional, given the possibility of complex interactions between these drugs.
In moderate amounts, anxiety is a healthy and positive emotional response. However, when it exceeds the limits of normalcy, anxiety can cause debilitating deterioration of the quality of life of the affected individual. Anxiety may come as a result of poor lifestyle habits, emotional stress, upbringing, personality, or traumatic events. It can be treated using a combination of psychological techniques and medications.