Fear and anxiety are not only the sources of human suffering – they also take a considerable part in adaptation. Fear helps us to stay away from dangers, and anxiety gets us ready for a potential threat. Anxiety is a normal human emotion which everyone experiences from time to time. But if this emotion turns into constant intense stress and affects the ability of a person to lead a normal life, then it’s a sign of a mental disorder.
Anxiety disorders have in common the constant feeling of unease and restlessness which are caused by psycho-emotional anguish, not related to the ongoing events.
Why do people have anxiety disorders?
The exact reason for anxiety disorders is still unknown but they are not a result of bad upbringing, the lack of willpower or some personality defect (as well as other mental illnesses). Scientists continue their research on the matter. It’s been discovered by now that a number of factors have an influence on the development of anxiety disorders:
- Brain chemistry changes;
- The effect of environmental stress on the human organism;
- The disruption in functioning of interneuronal connections which take part in the formation of emotions;
- Prolonged stress is interfering with the transmission of information from one part of the brain to another;
- The pathologies (abnormal development or disease) in the brain structure responsible for emotion and memory;
- The predisposition to anxiety disorders can be inherited from a parent (as well as other diseases, for example, cancer or bronchial asthma);
- Traumatic events in the past (psychological trauma, stress).
There are a few diseases which can lead to anxiety disorders:
- Mitral valve prolapse (it happens when one of the heart valves doesn’t close properly);
- Hyperthyroidism (thyroid gland hyperactivity);
- Hypoglycemia (low level of blood sugar);
- Addiction to psychoactive stimulants (amphetamines, cocaine, caffeine).
Panic attacks as manifestations of anxiety disorders can also be caused by diseases or other physical reasons.
Anxiety disorders: when should I turn to a therapist?
If you feel one of the following symptoms of anxiety disorders, consult a doctor immediately. The symptoms can vary depending on the type of anxiety disorder, but the common signs include:
- Frequently occurring feelings of panic, fear, restlessness;
- Sleeping disorders;
- Cold or sweaty hands and/or feet;
- The shortness of breath or other difficulties breathing;
- Dry mouth;
- Numbness or tingling in the arms or legs;
- Muscle tension;
- Chest pain, rapid heartbeat;
- Hyperventilation (rapid breathing);
- Blurred vision;
- Difficulties swallowing;
- Bloating, diarrhea.
All the manifestations of the disorder are accompanied by anxiety and negative thoughts, misinterpretation of the reality.
Anxiety disorders are not simple; they are formed by a multitude of elements: behavior, physiology, and mind. This mental disorder directly affects the behavior, reduces the working ability, can cause stammering, insomnia, hyperactivity, stereotypical (repetitive) behavioral patterns.
The physical symptoms (bodily manifestations) of anxiety disorders are often misinterpreted for life-threatening conditions because the affected person tends to see everything in “black” or “white”. For example, chest pain is mistaken for a heart attack, headaches – for a brain tumor, hyperventilation – for dying.
Diagnosing anxiety disorders
How to evaluate the risk of developing an anxiety disorder? In order to find out if a person has any predisposition to this mental illness, they should answer the following questions. Three or more affirmative answers mean that one is prone to anxiety.
- Do you experience episodes of intense fear or panic attacks?
- Have you ever felt the constant presence of negative thoughts in your head?
- Do you feel like you are going mad?
- Have you noticed that you’d begun to worry or fret more often than usual?
- Are you avoiding definite situations or people because you are afraid of a panic attack?
- Do you experience panic attacks in a queue, a traffic jam, an enclosed space or a place full of people?
- When you’re visiting new places, do you find out where the emergency exits are beforehand?
- Do you think you have obsessive thoughts?
- Do you experience one or a few symptoms of anxiety on a regular basis?
- Are you more nervous than usual?
- Are you concerned about your health more than usual?
- Have you become impatient, easily disappointed?
- Do you have a feeling that your life isn’t real and you’re living in a dream?
- What is your attitude to yourself? Is your self-esteem low?
- Do you often say “yes” when in fact you want to say “no”?
- Do you have a feeling of weakness?
- Nervousness and anxiety affect the quality of your work.
- Do you like to be in control of everything?
To determine the final diagnosis and prescribe the correct treatment, the doctor needs to identify the type of anxiety disorder.
There are a few types of anxiety disorders:
- Phobias – the constant inadequate fear without a real threat, feeling of panic in definite situations. Phobias are hard to control in spite of the patient’s desire to get rid of irrational fear. The most widespread phobias are specific phobias and social phobias.
- A specific phobia is a state of mind when a person is afraid of a definite object or situation. There are five most common types of specific phobias: the fear of animals (cats, dogs, rats, snakes, etc.), the fear of natural phenomena (dark, rain, etc.), situational fears (elevators, bridges, tunnels, etc.). The fear of blood, injections, physical trauma, and unusual phobias are less frequent.
- A person suffering from social phobia is afraid of being judged by other people. They are constantly thinking that they look stupid, speak out of place, act inappropriately. They’re prone to shame and believe that other people are mean to them. The mental disorder is leading to social isolation.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – a reaction to the traumatic events in the past that can’t be subdued (death, catastrophes, physical violence, or other tragedy). The patient is usually suffering from obsessive thoughts, relives the tragic events in their memory. It can be nightmares, delirium, hallucinations, panic attacks, and other violent reactions to illusory incidents. The affected person is always tense and jumpy, has trouble falling asleep and concentration difficulties, is edgy, irritable, prone to fits of anger.
- Acute Stress Disorder. It also occurs after a traumatic event. Nevertheless, it’s quite different from PTSD. The patient feels numb, void of any emotion, like the world around them is not real (dream-like state). The person with ASD feels their own body like a foreign object or sees themselves as someone else. As a result, dissociative amnesia can develop.
- Panic Disorder. Its main symptom is panic attacks. The attacks happen unexpectedly and quickly make the person scared out of their mind. They usually last from a few minutes to an hour and are accompanied by the shortness of breath, dizziness or fainting, rapid heartbeat, tremor (shivering), nausea, numb limbs, sudden fever or chills, pain or pressure in the chest, fear of dying or losing control over the things happening.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Unlike panic attacks, this mental disorder is chronic – it can last a few months. The affected person can’t relax, is easily fatigued, has difficulties concentrating, is irritable, lives in constant fear, can’t make a quick decision, is very afraid of making any mistake, is always tense and edgy. Generalized anxiety disorder affects the patient’s self-esteem, making them feel unworthy. A lot of such patients depend on other people’s opinion of them, often feel inferior, and have a deep conviction that they can’t change anything for the better.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The most important characteristic of this mental disorder is recurrent, inconsistent, unwanted, and uncontrolled (compulsive) obsessive thoughts or actions. They get into the patient’s mind and it’s very hard to get rid of them. The most widespread ones are concern about dirt and germs, the fear of sickness. The life of such patients is full of rituals, for example: frequent hand washing, cleaning, praying. These actions are a response to the obsessive thoughts and ideas, their purpose lies in self-defense from anxiety. Of course, it’s an unhealthy coping mechanism. The majority of the patients suffering from the obsessive compulsive disorder are also depressed.
Anxiety disorders: treatment
One of the greatest achievements of modern psychology is the development of new effective methods of treatment for anxiety disorders. A lot of people discover their own effective ways of dealing with anxiety, for example, deep even breathing, relaxing, yoga.
The patients suffering from anxiety disorders should first of all learn to control the physical manifestations of anxiety. There are two methods: muscle relaxation and controlled breathing. They’ll relieve the feeling of anxiety, help to fall asleep, alleviate the pain in tense muscles. Muscle relaxation is a technique that requires everyday exercises. It’s used for the treatment of anxiety disorders and is quite an effective means of anxiety control.
The next step in fighting anxiety attacks is deep even breathing (not hyperventilation). Breathing exercises are of great help in controlling the physical symptoms of anxiety.
Cognitive therapy turned out to be extremely efficient as a way of treatment. Anxiety can take the form of pessimistic thoughts, ideas, and fantasies which are hard to get rid of. Together with a therapist, the affected person analyzes and reformulates these thoughts, and then tries to think optimistically. The therapy is aimed at teaching the patients coping mechanisms: positive way of thinking, taking news more realistically, proving that their negativity contradicts the facts.
Adaptation therapy – the method when patients are repeatedly exposed to the things which cause their fear. The treatment starts with simple tasks which gradually become more and more complicated until the patient overcomes their anxiety in a definite situation. This method has helped to cure 80-90% of specific phobias.
Only the most severe cases of anxiety disorders require drug therapy, and it should be combined with other ways of treatment. The medicines shouldn’t become an addiction – they must be used only in order to alleviate some of the symptoms (such as violent panic attacks).
The medicines used for treating anxiety disorders include:
- Antidepressants – Maprotilinum, Mianserinum, Milnacipranum, Mirtazapine, Moclobemide, Paroxetine, Pipofezinum, Pirlindolum, Sertraline, Tianeptine, Trazodone, Fluvoxamine, Fluoxetine. Their effect starts only after a few weeks, so they should be taken constantly, not only when the symptoms manifest.
- Benzodiazepines – Diazepam, Clonazepam, Nоozepam, Frizium, Lorazepam. These are mostly sedatives which work very quickly (usually after 15-30 minutes). These medications help to calm down during a panic attack. Nevertheless, benzodiazepines are quite dangerous. They are addictive and can cause withdrawal symptoms. That’s why these drugs should be used with caution and only if the doctor’s prescribed them.
Peppermint is good if after a panic attack the patient is suffering from the upset stomach.
Chamomile helps to calm down and relax.
Lavender is great for aromatherapy: it soothes the nerves, relieves headaches, and alleviates tension.
The infusion of linden flowers has an antispasmodic and sedative effect; it stabilizes the blood pressure which can be raised because of anxiety.
Passionflower is one of the best natural sedatives. It’s strongly recommended for treating insomnia.
Lemon balm is a natural remedy for headaches. It also lightens the mood and gives strength.
Valerian helps to overcome panic attacks, eases breathing and sleeping, alleviates muscle tension and headaches caused by anxiety disorders.
Preventive measures against anxiety disorders
When it comes to anxiety disorders, professional treatment and psychotherapy make a great difference. But there are also precautions which you can take in order to prevent the development of a mental disorder.
- Learn more about anxiety disorders. If you do this, you’ll be able to recognize the symptoms and take the situation under control, will avoid the unexpected feelings and overcome the stress.
- Drink less coffee and give up smoking. Nicotine and caffeine can trigger an anxiety disorder. Be careful with medicines that contain stimulants (such as diet pills, cold tablets).
- Learn how to control your breathing. Deep even breathing can help you calm down during a panic attack. Learning this technique, you’ll develop the skill that can be used for self-help.
- Use the relaxation methods. Regular exercises (such as yoga, meditation, and muscle relaxation) will help you to strengthen your nerve system.