Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. In fact, a certain amount of fear or worry is not only appropriate, but actually beneficial in day-to-day life. Anxiety alerts you to impending danger. For instance, if you have ever felt your heart rate accelerate at the sound of an approaching ambulance as you made a quick decision to pull your car to the side of the road, your anxiety has helped you to keep yourself and others safe. Anxiety also keeps your mind active and engaged in important moments. Have you ever felt nervous before the day of a big test? If you have, your anxiety was acting as your ally—prompting you to be prepared for and to keep focused on the test.
Even though anxiety is a useful response in certain situations, it is not something we want to experience all the time. Many people struggle with anxiety continually, even when they are not in any danger. They find it difficult for their brains and bodies to switch from worry mode, remaining vigilant when it would be more appropriate to relax. If you find yourself plagued by worry or in a near-constant state of emergency, you may be among the 40 million Americans who struggle with an anxiety disorder.
There are many different types of anxiety disorders, including Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, separation anxiety disorder, selective mutism, and agoraphobia.
The disorder that best represents chronic worry—and that comes to mind for most people when they think of anxiety—is GAD. GAD is characterized by disproportionate worry and dread, often in situations that would not provoke anxiety in other people. Those struggling with GAD feel worried more often than not and find it very difficult to get the worry under control. Some symptoms of GAD include restlessness, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, muscle soreness, irritability, and impaired concentration. Though the exact causes of GAD are still unknown, researchers believe that family background and biology play a role in its development.
Panic disorder is diagnosed in people with recurring panic attacks. Panic attacks are characterized by a sense of impending disaster or fear of death in situations in which there is no apparent danger. Symptoms of a panic attack include accelerated heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, trembling, numbness, disorientation, and lightheadedness or fainting. Often, those who suffer from panic disorder will live in fear of the next panic attack, which will, in turn, exacerbate the disorder. Those with panic disorder may drastically alter their lives in order to avoid situations that they fear could induce an attack. While they are extremely uncomfortable, panic attacks are not life-threatening.
Most people get butterflies in their stomachs in certain social situations, but the 15 million American adults who suffer from social anxiety disorder have such an intense fear of failing to perform or being judged negatively that social situations cause them significant distress. Social anxiety may severely interfere with a person’s life, preventing her from making friends, accepting job opportunities, attend school, or engage in romantic relationships.
Specific phobias are the most common anxiety disorder, affecting approximately 12.5% of the U.S. population at some point in their lives. Specific phobias are characterized by an intense fear of a specific object, situation, or place. People who suffer from specific phobias know that their fears do not make logical sense, and yet they cannot control them and will often go to great lengths to avoid the object of their fear. Some of the most common specific phobias center around germs, animals, heights, and driving.
Those with separation anxiety disorder will experience extreme distress upon separating from home or from primary major figures. Separation anxiety disorder may involve repeated nightmares involving separation, worry about harm befalling major attachment figures, and physical symptoms like headaches or nausea during periods of separation.
Selective mutism is diagnosed in children who refuse to speak in situations in which talking is appropriate or necessary, like school. Children with selective mutism may avoid eye contact and withdraw to avoid talking in certain situations, even when they are talkative in others.
Agoraphobia is characterized by an excessive fear of being unable to escape a given situation and is particularly common in people with panic disorder. People with agoraphobia often avoid spaces from which they think exiting may be difficult, like crowded shopping malls or movie theaters.
Though anxiety disorders are unpleasant and at times unbearable, they are highly treatable. Research shows both therapeutic and psychiatric interventions to be very effective in treating anxiety. If you think you may be suffering from excessive anxiety, contact a trained mental health professional. You do not have to live in worry.