No one can escape from life without experiencing a certain amount of anxiety. Sure, it can be uncomfortable by causing extreme uneasiness and even physical discomfort; but some anxiety can also be beneficial by enhancing our level of awareness. For example, being nervous about taking a long trip usually means the wary traveler will take extra precautions to ensure a safe journey. Or having sweaty palms before making a presentation motivates a nervous speaker to be amply prepared. Anxiety can also be helpful during times of perceived danger because it generally inspires prompt action.
So, when does normal anxiety become an anxiety disorder? When it disrupts the flow of everyday life by interfering with a person’s ability to function to their capacity. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “anxiety disorders affect about 40 million American adults age 18 years and older (about 18%) in a given year, causing them to be filled with fearfulness and uncertainty.”
These are the more common types of anxiety disorders:
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Anxiety caused by stress is usually not considered life altering because it fades when the crisis is over. However, when the stress continues to build and locks up the individual with intense fear and helplessness, it becomes an acute stress disorder. This is more commonly known as post-traumatic stress disorder that follows being involved in a serious accident, violent encounter, severe abuse, or witnessing a traumatic event.
When someone suffers from sudden and severe anxiety attacks, they are often left with a feeling of doom or loss of reality. These attacks can be accompanied by a pounding heart, faintness, nausea, chest pains, or other physical symptoms. They happen without warning and can even occur during sleep. This leaves the individual feeling out of control and sometimes causes them to live restricted lives by avoiding driving, shopping, or leaving the home.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Individuals with OCD develop rituals to help them unconsciously deal with extreme anxiety and upsetting thoughts. These compulsions may cause someone to repeatedly wash their hands, check the locks, or perform certain routines in a particular sequence. People with OCD sometimes have a hard time letting go of unneeded, material things and become hoarders. Many individuals with OCD recognize that their rituals are senseless but are unable to stop themselves. Their quest for order interferes with their daily lives, as well as the lives of those around them.
Social Anxiety Disorder
This type of phobia causes individuals to become extremely anxious in everyday social situations. Because they feel overwhelmingly self-conscious they worry excessively about how people perceive them. Often, they avoid social situations for fear of embarrassing themselves. This can interfere with work, school, and even family gatherings. It also makes it difficult for the individual to develop relationships.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Individuals with GAD experience excessive anxiety, worry, or apprehension that occurs more days than not over a period of time. Although they are often aware their anxiety is extreme, they are still unable to purge these unreasonable worries and concerns that can include impending disaster, health or money issues, family problems, or job matters. In addition to depression, people with GAD usually experience physical symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, stomachaches, and changes in body temperature.
What Causes an Anxiety Disorder?
Often, anxiety disorders overlap with other mental or physical disorders, but no one knows for sure what causes them. While there is evidence that some individuals may be genetically predisposed to certain types of anxiety disorders, other contributing factors can be environmental or societal. Specific medical conditions can also cause extreme anxiety such as a change in blood pressure or blood sugar, heart conditions, and hormones.
In any event, it’s important to know that professional help is available for all types of anxiety disorders which allow most people to lead happy, productive lives. If you or someone you know is suffering from severe anxiety, please seek treatment as soon as possible.