Dr. Erin Olivo answers common questions about the signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders.
What are anxiety disorders?
Fear and anxiety are a normal part of everyday life, but for millions of people these emotions can become debilitating and significantly impact their quality of life. Essentially there are three main types of anxiety disorders, which include panic disorder, phobias (specific phobia, social phobia and agoraphobia), and generalized anxiety disorder. Each of these disorders have unique symptoms and contributing factors involving an experience of fear and anxiety that goes beyond the normal response to a stressful event.
Who is at risk?
The precise causes of anxiety disorders are still under investigation, but it seems that the areas of the brain responsible for fear responses are very different in people who develop the disorders. People with a family member who has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder are also at higher risk of being diagnosed with one, indicating there could be a genetic component to their development.
What are the symptoms of anxiety disorders?
Each of the three main categories of anxiety disorders have a unique set of symptoms. The intensity of symptoms, the level of impairment they cause, and the duration of the symptoms (typically six months) are all considered when making a diagnosis.
The primary symptom of a panic disorder is a panic attack, which is an overwhelming experience of physical and psychological distress. Panic attacks include some combination of pounding or racing heart, shortness of breath, sweating, trembling, sensation of choking, nausea or abdominal pain, dizziness, numbness, chills or hot flashes, feeling unreal or disconnected, fear of losing control or fear of dying. Many believe that they are having a heart attack or have some other life threatening condition during panic attacks. They can be so severe that people begin to fear having another panic attack and may avoid certain situations in an attempt to prevent them.
A phobia is an excessive and persistent fear of a specific object, situation or activity. This excessive fear causes people to avoid what they fear and begins to interfere with their ability to engage in normal life activities. People can experience specific phobias of objects or situations (such as fear of flying or spiders), can become phobic of social situations (also known as social anxiety) or can develop agoraphobia, a fear of being in an inescapable or unfamiliar place that at its extreme can lead people to avoid leaving their home.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
People with generalized anxiety disorder suffer from ongoing worry about several different aspects of their life at once and their worry interferes with their ability to function normally. They feel unable to control their worrying and often suffer from sleep problems, irritability, chronic headaches and may have difficulty concentrating.
What can I do if I notice the symptoms in myself, or someone I care about?
If you notice any of these symptoms in yourself or someone you care about it is important that you get properly diagnosed so you can get effective treatment. If you don’t know where to go for help, ask your family doctor. Most anxiety disorders respond well to medication and psychotherapy. There are several effective medications that can offer relief from anxiety symptoms. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be very effective in treating anxiety disorders by helping people change thought patterns and behaviors that support or exacerbate their fears.