Anxiety therapy is one of the most under-utilized mental health services in this country. About 18% of the population (around 58 million people), have an anxiety disorder, yet only about one third of those people ever seek therapy. An anxiety disorder is more than simply feeling nervous or worried. Anxiety is a normal human emotion, but an anxiety disorder has a much deeper impact on a person’s life and relationships. The good news is that anxiety disorders are extremely responsive to anxiety therapy, making significant, lasting changes in a person’s life.
The symptoms of an anxiety disorder can look similar to everyday anxiety. However, an anxiety disorder is different than normal anxiety in that it significantly limits and interferes with a person’s life. The fears are lasting, uncontrollable, overwhelming and defy rational logic or evidence. For example, it would be normal to feel anxiety and sadness following a traumatic event, but with an anxiety disorder there might be persistent nightmares, flashbacks and emotional numbing months or years after the trauma. Instead of normal fears about a job review at work, an anxiety disorder may stop a person from even going to work for the review. The fears may even connect to events or situations that are highly unlikely to occur, like a fear of dying in a plane crash, or have no clear triggering event at all.
Symptoms of an anxiety disorder include:
Types of Anxiety Disorders
A panic disorder/panic attack is when a person is flooded with fear of being in danger. They may occur suddenly and with no clear reason, which is why it may initially be confused with symptoms of a heart attack.
A phobia is an uncontrollable, irrational and persistent fear of a specific object, situation, or activity. The fear experienced by people with phobias can be so great that some individuals go to extreme lengths to avoid the source of their dread.
Obsessions are frequent, irrational thoughts that create anxiety. No amount of reasoning can control the fear, even if the person realizes it’s irrational. Common obsessions include preoccupations with dirt or germs, or nagging doubts (e.g., “Did I turn off the oven?” or “Did I lock the house?”).
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can happen when a person has been through a severe or terrifying physical or emotional event. The trauma continues to replay in dreams, memories or flashbacks and causes extreme emotional, mental, and physical distress. This can happen spontaneously or when a situation triggers the memory.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is ongoing, exaggerated tension that can interfere with daily functioning. It’s usually related to normal stressors, like family, work and money, but the level of worry makes a person tired, irritable and distracted, and can interfere with health and sleeping. This usually leads to other issues, such as depression or addiction.
It’s important to first sort out what is at the root of an anxiety disorder to put together the most effective treatment package of anxiety therapy and/or medication. There are several typical causes of an anxiety disorder to consider.
Biological factors often factor into an anxiety disorder. Since they are often responsive to medications, it seems there is a brain chemistry element at work. Even more significant is that fact that anxiety disorders seem to run in families, suggesting a genetic factor.
It’s also very important to get a complete physical exam from your doctor to rule out a thyroid imbalance other illnesses that can mimic the symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Along with this would be looking at any prescription or vitamins/supplements since there can be interactions or side effects that create feelings of anxiety.
Personality style may also leave a person more prone to the effects of external stressors. Some individuals have a higher sensitivity to stress and their brain and body overload more easily.
Environmental stressors are the other factor in anxiety disorders. Large life traumas, like a car crash, may be easier to see as the trigger that overwhelms a person. However, exposure to long-term low-level stress that can’t be avoided, such as poverty, violence, or high conflict relationships in a home or at work, can also be the catalyst for an anxiety disorder.
Fortunately, anxiety disorders are very responsive to treatment, and the majority of patients receiving help from anxiety therapy and/or medication experience significant relief from their symptoms. Sadly, people with anxiety disorders don’t often seek help. They may not recognize the symptoms as being an anxiety disorder or think that others would judge them. Maybe they even judge themselves thinking they should just get past the symptoms.
In my approach to anxiety therapy, part of the work is on teaching relaxation techniques and skills that help slow down the physiological symptoms of anxiety. When the physiology slows down, the anxious thoughts and feelings usually slow down as well. This helps bring about some peace for a person knowing that they can manage their own symptoms.
Beyond managing symptoms, there may be underlying beliefs or emotional issues to resolve. These may be obvious, like someone freezing up when others yell because it reminds them of the angry parent who used to yell at them. Other times, the anxiety a person feels is actually sadness or anger that has been held inside. Like someone who is sad loosing a loved one but can’t stop laughing when at the funeral, sometimes anxiety is a sign that there is more going on emotionally under the surface. Emotions and unfinished hurts will always find a way to express themselves, and this may look like anxiety. An anxiety therapist can help discern the difference and untangle the emotions to process.
Medication can be an important part of the anxiety therapy treatment package. There are a variety of different types of medication available that work with different symptoms and different people. Please make sure you are seeing a psychiatrist if you plan on taking medication for anxiety. Though any physician can prescribe the medication, a psychiatrist is a specialist in medication for the mind and you’re worth getting the best help available.