What is Anxiety? Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment

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Anxiety is an emotional and physical state experienced when facing something uncertain or when anticipating a future event will be threatening. Anxiety is a typical experience we all have. While each anxiety disorder has unique criteria required for diagnosis, there are some general, overlapping symptoms of anxiety.

What is Anxiety?

There are many different words used to describe the feeling of anxiety…worried, nervous, uneasy, on edge, apprehensive, fearful, scared, tense, panicked, and restless. But what exactly is anxiety?

Anxiety is an emotional and physical state experienced when facing something uncertain or when anticipating a future event will be threatening. Anxiety is a typical experience we all have.

Sometimes we worry about not having enough money or about being judged by other people. Sometimes we are afraid to go rock climbing or talk in front of a large group of peers. There are many day-to-day issues and major events in our lives that can elicit anxiety. And in many of these cases anxiety can actually be useful, keeping us motivated and safe.

However, when anxiety is excessive, persistent, and distressing, it can start to impact daily life in very significant ways. This type of anxious reaction, which is beyond what we would usually expect for a situation, would be characteristic of an anxiety disorder.

“Anxiety is an emotional and physical state experienced when facing something uncertain or when anticipating a future event will be threatening.”

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition in the United States, affecting about 31.1% of adults. There are different types of anxiety disorders based on the trigger or content, including generalized anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, phobias, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Classic Symptom of Anxiety

While each anxiety disorder has unique criteria required for diagnosis, there are some general, overlapping symptoms, including…

• Excessive fear, worry, or distress

• Unrealistic, extreme, or intrusive thoughts

• Physical discomfort (sweating, dizziness, shaking, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, nausea, muscle tension)

• Restlessness, fatigue, irritability, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating

• Safety behaviors (avoidance, reassurance seeking, rituals)

• Meltdowns, tantrums, freezing, clinging (in children)

• Interference with daily functioning

Where Does Anxiety Come From?

Researchers have spent a lot of time trying to determine why some people develop an anxiety disorder and others do not. Like many other mental health conditions, there is no one reason or cause. Anxiety disorders often develop through a combination of risk factors, including…

• Genetic predisposition

• Neurobiological factors

• Brain chemistry

• Medical conditions

• Personality factors

• Environment

• Life events

• Behavioral choices

• Use or withdrawal from an illicit substance

Remember, anxiety is no one’s fault. In many cases, we have very little control over these risk factors. You wouldn’t blame someone for getting cancer, would you? The good news is, knowing what caused the anxiety disorder is not necessary in order to do something about it.

Treatment Options

The most important piece of information you can take from this article is…anxiety disorders are highly treatable. Unfortunately, many people do not know this and assume there is nothing they can do.

Only 1/3 of adults and 1/5 of teens with anxiety disorders actually receive treatment. There are two scientifically proven methods of treatment that have been highly effective in reducing anxiety, which can be used separately or in combination.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based treatment focused on a person’s current symptoms and learned patterns. Time is spent understanding an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in order to determine what is maintaining their anxiety and what can be done to shift into new, more healthy patterns. Clients develop new perspectives, coping skills, and behaviors while building confidence in their own abilities.

Exposure is a valuable CBT technique used to help clients test out their predictions and face their fears. Overall, CBT is an active treatment which aims to equip each individual with strategies and tools that can be used well into the future.

Medication can also be used to decrease anxiety. Common medications prescribed for anxiety are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Prozac and Lexapro, and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), such as Cymbalta or Effexor.

Benzodiazepines, like Xanax and Valium, are indicated for short-term use to relieve acute symptom of anxiety. More recently anxiolytics, like Buspar, have been used for Generalized Anxiety Disorder, while beta blockers, like Inderal, have been used for Phobias and to decrease the physical symptoms of anxiety.

Neurostimulation, such as repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and deep transcranial magnetic stimulation (dTMS), are experimental treatments currently being tested for their effectiveness in reducing anxiety. These treatments target neural activity in the brain directly using non-invasive electric currents.

Some clinical trials have shown reduced symptoms of anxiety in clients that did not respond to more traditional types of treatment.

It can be very challenging to take the first step toward treatment. But you are not alone and there are educated professionals who would be happy to work with you. The organizations below are great resources for understanding more about anxiety, finding support through shared experience, and locating a clinician in your area who treats anxiety.

Click here for more content by Dr. Andrea Umbach!

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