Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure. Anxiety disorders involve repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes (panic attacks). These feelings of anxiety and panic interfere with daily activities, are difficult to control, are out of proportion to the actual danger and can last a long time.
Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. However, anxiety disorders occur when feelings of anxiety and fear are overwhelming or difficult to control, cause distress, and interfere with daily life and relationships. There are several types of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Treatment for anxiety involves psychotherapy, medication, or both. Lifestyle changes can also help some people manage anxiety disorders.
The main symptoms of anxiety disorders are:
- Feelings of panic, fear, and uneasiness
- Problems sleeping
- Cold, sweaty, numb or tingling hands or feet
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- Dry mouth
- Muscle tension
Some additional signs and symptoms may include:
- Inability to be still and calm
- Dry mouth
- Numbness or tingling in the hands, feet, arms or legs
- Flushed skin
- Avoidance of places and situations that trigger anxiety
The severity of symptoms varies, depending on the type of anxiety disorder and the person. For some people, anxiety attack symptoms can be so debilitating that they cannot leave home.
The exact cause of anxiety disorders is unknown, but a number of factors play a role, including:
- Genetics – Anxiety disorders run in families. Genetics may play a role in determining who develops anxiety disorders. However, it’s not clear what role genetics plays in the development of these disorders.
- Brain chemistry – An imbalance of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin, may contribute to developing an anxiety disorder.
- Life experiences – Traumatic events during childhood, such as abuse, death of a loved one, violence or prolonged illness, may lead to anxiety disorders later in life.
- Medical factors – Other medical conditions, prescription medications, and use of alcohol, caffeine or illegal substances can worsen symptoms of anxiety disorders.
A combination of these factors may trigger the development of anxiety disorders. However, pinpointing exact causes remains difficult.
Risk factors for developing anxiety disorders include:
- Trauma. Children who endure abuse, violence, natural disasters and other traumatic events are at higher risk of developing anxiety disorders later in life.
- Phobias. Having a phobia puts you at greater risk of developing other anxiety disorders or depression.
- Other mental health disorders. People who have depression, ADHD or post-traumatic stress disorder face higher odds of having an anxiety disorder.
- Substance use. Using drugs or alcohol can worsen anxiety symptoms and increase your risk of anxiety disorders.
- Personality. People with certain personality types – such as perfectionism or avoidance of uncertainty – are more prone to anxiety disorders.
When to Get Help for Anxiety
See a doctor or mental health professional for treatment if:
- Your worries and fears are interfering with work, school or family responsibilities and relationships
- Symptoms are causing significant distress and impairing your ability to function
- You feel depressed, are experiencing suicidal thoughts, or are using drugs or alcohol to cope with anxiety
- You have urges to avoid things that trigger anxiety
- You start to withdraw and isolate yourself to avoid situations that cause anxiety
Getting help when anxiety symptoms first appear can prevent anxiety from progressing to a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. The earlier treatment starts, the more effectively it treats anxiety disorders.
Treatment options available for anxiety disorders include:
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) teaches you different ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to anxiety-producing and fearful objects and situations. CBT can also help you learn and practice social skills, relaxation methods, and how to slowly return to the activities you were avoiding because of anxiety.
Exposure therapy is a form of CBT that teaches you to gradually approach feared objects or situations by repeatedly confronting it. Through this repetitive exposure, you’ll feel less anxious over time. This therapy is often used for phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Medications used to treat anxiety disorders include:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs are commonly used to treat anxiety disorders. Examples include escitalopram (Lexapro), paroxetine (Paxil) and sertraline (Zoloft). SSRIs are generally well-tolerated and safe.
- Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). Examples include venlafaxine (Effexor XR) and duloxetine (Cymbalta).
- Benzodiazepines. Examples include alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), lorazepam (Ativan) and diazepam (Valium). Long-term use can lead to dependence, so they’re most useful for short-term, severe anxiety.
- Beta blockers. These medications control some of the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as rapid heartbeat, shaking hands and trembling voice. They’re most helpful for phobias, particularly social phobia and performance anxiety.
These medications take several weeks to begin working. Often your doctor will start you at a low dose and increase it slowly over several weeks or months as needed and tolerated.
Natural and lifestyle remedies
Making healthy lifestyle changes can also help manage anxiety disorder symptoms, either alone or in combination with therapy.
- Avoid or limit caffeine.
- Exercise regularly. Aerobic exercise that elevates your heart rate releases endorphins, natural substances that improve mood and reduce stress.
- Practice relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing can reduce anxiety symptoms.
- Get enough sleep. Not getting enough sleep can trigger or exacerbate anxiety.
- Limit alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol can make anxiety worse.
Joining a support group for people with anxiety disorders can help you feel less isolated and provide strategies for managing your symptoms.
Anxiety disorders are treatable conditions. A combination of psychotherapy, medications, lifestyle changes and natural remedies can help relieve symptoms so you can function and enjoy life again. The key is to identify problematic anxiety early and get the right support and treatment. Ongoing treatment can prevent anxiety problems from coming back or getting worse over time.
|Type of Anxiety Disorder||Main Symptoms|
|Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)||Excessive worrying occurring more days than not for at least 6 months, about a number of events or activities.|
|Panic Disorder||Repeated, unexpected panic attacks followed by concern of having another panic attack.|
|Agoraphobia||Intense fear and anxiety of any place or situation where escape might be difficult.|
|Social Anxiety Disorder||Extreme fear of social situations, public speaking, and activities that involve unfamiliar people.|
|Specific Phobias||Intense fear related to a specific object or situation, such as heights or flying.|
|Separation Anxiety Disorder||Intense fear and anxiety related to separation from parents or attachment figures.|
In summary, anxiety disorders involve more than temporary anxiety or fear. They are chronic conditions that interfere significantly with day-to-day life. Identifying problematic anxiety early and seeking the right professional help can prevent symptoms from progressing and give you relief. With proper treatment, support and lifestyle changes, you can overcome anxiety disorders and regain your sense of well-being and control.