Note: The information in this post comes from NAMI, Mental Health America and the Veterans Administration.
Anxiety is the most common form of mental illness in the U.S., affecting 14% of the population before the pandemic. The KFF Health Tracking Poll from June 2020 reported that the number had risen to 40% of adults during 2020. Typically, the National Institutes of Health reports that 18% of adults and 8% of children and teenagers have anxiety.
Anxiety disorders are a group of related conditions, each with unique symptoms. All the types of anxiety disorders do have three major things in common:
- Extreme fear and dread, even when there is nothing to provoke it
- Emotional distress that affects daily life
- A tendency to avoid situations that bring on anxiety
Anxiety also can be an early warning sign of a relapse in other forms of mental illness, including schizophrenia.
People suffering from anxiety disorders typically experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Mood and thinking: Worry or concern, fear, irritability, or difficulty concentrating.
- Behavior: Avoidance of feared situations, escape from unpleasant situations, trembling, and agitation (such as pacing)
- Increased arousal: Perspiration, heart palpitations, muscular tension, butterflies in stomach, mild nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, headaches, sweating, tremors or twitches, frequent urination, diarrhea, insomnia and fatigue
The most common types of anxiety disorders include:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD produces chronic, exaggerated worrying about everyday life. This worrying can consume hours each day, making it hard to concentrate or finish daily tasks. A person with GAD may become exhausted by worry and experience headaches, tension or nausea.
Social Anxiety Disorder
More than shyness, this disorder causes intense fear about social interaction, often driven by irrational worries about humiliation (e.g. saying something stupid or not knowing what to say). Someone with social anxiety disorder may not take part in conversations, contribute to class discussions or offer their ideas, and may become isolated. Panic attacks are a common reaction to anticipated or forced social interaction.
This disorder is characterized by panic attacks and sudden feelings of terror sometimes striking repeatedly and without warning. Often mistaken for a heart attack, a panic attack causes powerful physical symptoms including chest pain, heart palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath and stomach upset.
We all tend to avoid certain things or situations that make us uncomfortable or even fearful. But for someone with a phobia, certain places, events or objects create powerful reactions of strong, irrational fear. Most people with specific phobias have several things that can trigger those reactions. To avoid panic, they will work hard to avoid their triggers. Depending on the type and number of triggers, attempts to control fear can take over a person’s life.
Causes of Anxiety Disorders
Scientists believe that many factors combine to cause anxiety disorders:
- Genetics. Studies support the evidence that anxiety disorders “run in families,” as some families have a higher-than-average amount of anxiety disorders among relatives.
- Environment. A stressful or traumatic event such as abuse, death of a loved one, violence or prolonged illness is often linked to the development of an anxiety disorder.
Physical symptoms of an anxiety disorder can be easily confused with other medical conditions, like heart disease or hyperthyroidism. Therefore, a doctor will likely perform an evaluation involving a physical examination, an interview and lab tests. After ruling out an underlying physical illness, a doctor may refer a person to a mental health professional for evaluation.
Because different anxiety disorders have their own distinct symptoms, each type has its own treatment plan. Common types of treatment include:
- Psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy
- Medications, including antianxiety medications and antidepressants
- Complementary health approaches, including stress and relaxation techniques
Leading a balanced lifestyle helps us manage symptoms. The suggestions from people who have lived experience with anxiety are similar to those who live with depression:
Learn all you can. Learn about your loved one’s mental illness, our own anxiety, and the many treatment options available. Connect with other people experiencing anxiety in support groups or meetings. Attend local conferences and conventions. Build a personal library of useful websites and helpful books. Learning is an active thing we can do that gives us a feeling of control.
Recognize early symptoms. Identify possible warning signs and triggers that may aggravate your symptoms.
Partner with your health care providers. Give your health care provider all the information he or she needs to help you recover—including any reactions to medications, your symptoms or any triggers you notice. Develop trust and communicate openly.
Avoid drugs and alcohol.
Get physically healthy.
Anxiety is common. Especially in difficult times. As a caregiver of a person with a mental illness, you are likely to experience it occasionally. Be sure to take it seriously. You have to help yourself first before you can help the people you love.