Do you constantly worry? In today’s dismal economic climate, your anxiety may be at an all-time high. Whether you’re watching your retirement savings shrink, fretting about how to pay for college, worrying about a possible layoff or happily employed but nervously following the news, these are anxiety-provoking times.
Anxiety is a normal reaction to stressful and uncertain situations. It’s your body’s way of telling you to stay alert and protect yourself. But how much anxiety is too much?
May is Mental Health Month – an annual observance to increase awareness of mental illness. There’s no better time to take a look at our own mental and emotional well-being and examine if our behavior and feelings fall within the realm of “normal,” or something more.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in America, affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older (18.1% of U.S. population).
What is Anxiety?
If you experience worry and irrational fears for hours at a time, can’t sleep or perform usual tasks, then you may have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety becomes unhealthy when it stops pushing you to act. This can happen either because you are worried about things out of your control, worried about things that have not happened yet or paralyzed by the stress and anxiety you feel, rather than being inspired to act.
People with anxiety disorders may experience constant worry, anticipation of danger, lack of control, difficulty concentrating and physical restlessness.
Here are five of the most common anxiety disorders.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a pattern of frequent, constant worry and anxiety over many different events and activities. GAD is very different from normal anxiety you may feel about the current recession or any other stressful event. GAD is not triggered by a specific situation. Even in the best of times, GAD affects 6.8 million American adults. Women are twice as likely to be affected.
People with generalized anxiety disorder experience persistent, excessive and unrealistic worry about issues like money, health, family or work for six months or longer. They don’t know how to stop the worry cycle, which they feel is beyond their control. Physical symptoms of GAD may include fatigue, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, irritability, muscle tension, gastrointestinal discomfort or diarrhea.
A specific phobia is an excessive fear upon exposure to a specific object. When confronted by such objects or events, such as elevators, funerals, lightening storms, insects or furry animals, phobic individuals become extremely fearful. Specific phobias may also involve fear of losing control, panicking and fainting when confronted with feared object.
A social phobia is a persistent fear of exposure to possible scrutiny by others. A person with a social phobia may fear that he or she will do something or act in a way that will be humiliating or embarrassing. This diagnosis is only made if the consequent avoidant behavior interferes with functioning at work or in usual social situations or if the person is markedly distressed about the problem.
- Panic Attacks
Unmanaged anxiety disorders can lead to panic attacks. Panic attacks are a brief period of intense fear or discomfort. People who have panic attacks experience sweating, trembling, palpitations, feelings of choking, chest pain, nausea, dizziness and fear of losing control, all in a short period of time. In panic disorder, there is persistent worry and concern about the attacks and changes in behavior related to the attacks. Women are twice as likely to be affected as men. It is common for individuals who have panic attacks to also have major depression.
- Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD occurs when there is exposure to a physically or psychologically traumatic event resulting in an intense emotional response of fear, helplessness or horror. An individual might experience intrusive thoughts, mental images and/or disturbing dreams recalling the traumatic event. PTSD disrupts the functioning of people affected by it, interfering with their daily tasks and needs. To be diagnosed with PTSD, symptoms must be present for more than one month, and the traumatic event must cause significant clinical distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of life. Studies show that approximately 8-10 percent of Americans experienced or will experience PTSD, and it can occur at any age.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions). For individuals with OCD, worries, doubts and superstitious beliefs are common in everyday life. Some people can be methodical, precise and value order and cleanliness, but not have OCD. People with OCD suffer from intrusive and unwanted thoughts that they can't seem to get out of their heads (obsessions), often compelling them to repeatedly perform ritualistic behaviors and routines (compulsions) to try and ease their anxiety. OCD affects about 2.2 million American adults, and the problem can be accompanied by eating disorders, other anxiety disorders or depression.
Treatment for Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders can be effectively treated with psychotherapy, medication or a combination of both. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a short-term form of psychotherapy. It focuses on identifying, understanding and modifying thinking and behavior patterns.
Medication does not cure anxiety disorders, but it can help manage symptoms while an individual undergoes psychotherapy. Many medications used to treat depression are also effective for anxiety disorders.
In addition to psychotherapy and medication, there are six tactics you can use to help manage anxiety.
- Pinpoint the cause of worry
- Recognize your reaction
- Put stress in perspective
- Take responsibility
- Take a time-out
- Seek help
Try to determine what specifically causes you to worry. Take time to sort through your feelings, and recognize your fear-based reactions when “what if” thoughts begin. Put stress in perspective by accepting that you can’t control everything. Take responsibility by coming up with a plan to tackle the part of the problem that is under your control. Perhaps you can change your routine or schedule in order to feel in control of your life. Take a time-out from your overactive thoughts and concerns. Take a deep breath. Rest well. Eat well. Welcome humor, and maintain a positive attitude. Practice yoga, listen to music, volunteer or get a massage. Stepping back from the problem will let you clear your head.
Finally, counseling can help! Counseling involves talking with a trained mental health professional to learn how to deal with issues like anxiety disorders.