Medically reviewed by Susan Vachon, PA-C on January 10, 2022
When you have anxiety, it can feel like the world is caving in on you. Use this guide to learn more about anxiety so you can find the treatments that are right for you.
Everyone has anxiety from time to time. However, it’s when you feel persistent and excessive worry about your everyday life that ‘ordinary’ anxiety can move into the realm of something that needs treatment.
For example, you may be dreading going to work or meeting new people. Or thinking about unpredictable future events might cause you intense fear or terror. Or, in order to compensate for or avoid developing symptoms of anxiety, you may start avoiding certain people or places.
What is anxiety?
From a scientific standpoint, anxiety is your body’s physiological reaction to perceived mental or physical threats.
When your brain perceives a threat, it reacts by triggering a response in the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in emotions. From there, the amygdala triggers a response in the hypothalamus, another part of the brain responsible for maintaining your body’s heart rate and blood pressure and preparing it for action. This leads to some of anxiety’s tell-tale symptoms: rapid heart rate, flushed skin, and tense muscles.
Both the amygdala and hypothalamus, along with the hippocampus and thalamus, are part of what’s called the limbic system. Together, these parts of the brain work together to process emotions. In individuals with anxiety disorders, the limbic system is more active, suggesting that their emotional processing is on overload.
What are anxiety disorders?
It’s natural to feel anxiety sometimes. But when it’s persistent and doesn’t seem to go away, it’s known as an anxiety disorder. Often, anxiety disorders get worse over time and interfere with your daily life.
What are the types of anxiety disorders?
There are several kinds of anxiety disorders, all of which affect everyone a little bit differently.
If you have a phobia, you’re afraid of something that’s not inherently dangerous. This irrational fear is intense and can even cause panic attacks. Examples include being afraid of spiders, crowded places, or flying.
With panic disorders, you’ll have a panic attack often without any underlying cause. You may find it hard to breathe, experience chest pain, feel like you’re going to die, or feel your heartbeat fluttering.
Social Anxiety Disorder
People with social anxiety disorder have high levels of anxiety when it comes to interacting with others. They may avoid social situations because they’re embarrassed or self-conscious.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
If a person has GAD, they’ll worry over normal things like money, relationships, and work. While most people eventually get over these worries, people with GAD eventually find themselves consumed by them.
How common are anxiety disorders?
Anxiety disorders are relatively common. The American Psychiatric Association estimates they affect almost 30% of adults at some time in their lives. Right now in the United States, over 40 million adults are struggling with an anxiety disorder, while 7% of children ages three to 17 have one.
Learning more about the symptoms of anxiety disorders can help you better understand if you have one. Just keep in mind, you’ll need a medical professional to diagnose you.
What are the symptoms of anxiety disorders?
The symptoms of anxiety disorders can vary a bit depending on what type of disorder you have. However, general anxiety symptoms to look out for include:
- Experiencing a constant feeling of nervousness or restlessness
- Feeling like you’re in danger or that your future is at risk even when it is not actually at risk
- Having a faster heart rate and breathing faster than usual
- Sweating and trembling
- Being tired or weak
- Being unable to think about anything other than what you’re worrying about
- Problems sleeping
- Having recurring gastrointestinal issues
- Being unable to control your worry
- Feeling like you want to avoid situations or people that trigger your anxiety
How are anxiety disorders diagnosed?
A medical professional is the only one who can diagnose you with an anxiety disorder. They’ll likely ask you questions about your mental state and your symptoms. They may also perform a psychological evaluation to see if you meet specific medical diagnostic criteria.
There can be many different causes of anxiety disorders. Scientists are still trying to piece it all together, but they believe that in most people, anxiety disorders are caused by several factors.
What causes anxiety disorders?
Some research suggests that genetics could play a role in the development of anxiety disorders. In particular, one study found that the RBFOX1 gene may be responsible for the development of GAD.
However, beyond genetic factors, the biggest cause of anxiety is stress. When you’re stressed, it sends your amygdala into overdrive, making your limbic system – and thereby your mind and body – feel like it is under stress at all times and in all situations. Trauma can also cause an anxiety disorder in much the same way.
In many cases, other medical issues can cause anxiety disorders. Some of the health problems that can contribute to anxiety include:
- Heart disease
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Problems with your thyroid
There are many risk factors that can increase your chances of developing anxiety.
Who is at risk for anxiety disorders?
The biggest risk factors for anxiety disorders include:
- Gender. Women are more at risk for developing many types of anxiety disorders, and researchers think this is a combination of both societal and biological factors.
- Personality type. Interestingly, research has found that people who are critical of themselves, don’t take criticism well, or had a lot of negative thoughts as a young adult had a greater chance of having anxiety. Introverts were also slightly more likely than extroverts to have a disorder.
- Trauma survivors. Trauma plays a huge role in anxiety disorders, whether you’re a soldier who’s been in the front lines of combat, someone who suffered abuse as a child or someone raised around violence or unstable family situations. These experiences can cause an imbalance in the limbic system.
- Those with family members with other mental health problems. Anxiety disorders are common in people with relatives who have anxiety or depression.
- Those who use drugs and alcohol. Misusing drugs and alcohol can lead to anxiety, as can withdrawing from these substances.
When should people seek treatment for anxiety?
If you feel like your anxiety is interfering with your life, it’s time to seek treatment. It’s normal to feel stressed and worried every once in a while, but usually, these feelings pass. If it’s been weeks and you still aren’t finding relief, it’s best to speak to a medical professional who can evaluate your situation and recommend treatment.
Treatments and Therapies
The good news is that if you’re diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, there are many kinds of anxiety treatment you can try.
How are anxiety disorders treated?
There are four main ways to treat anxiety disorders. Often, your doctor may prescribe a combination of these anxiety treatments to help you achieve a fuller recovery.
With psychotherapy, you’ll have counseling sessions with a therapist where you can talk about your issues. A specific form of psychotherapy which has been studied for the treatment of anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy. In this therapy, you’ll work on changing your patterns of thought so you can react differently in specific situations. However, other forms of therapy can be used to treat anxiety as well. Over time, therapy can help you learn to control your fears and anxiety.
Your doctor may prescribe you an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication. Both of these work by altering the levels of neurotransmitters in your brain. Neurotransmitters send signals to various parts of the brain, so medication that brings those different areas of the brain and their functions into balance, thereby helping to solve anxiety problems.
Support groups may be an excellent way for you to talk with others who are also experiencing anxiety. In these groups, you’ll share your stories and listen to how others have overcome their worries.
Stress Management Techniques
Your doctor will likely recommend some stress management techniques to help you deal with triggers better. For example, exercise is a good way to relieve stress, as is eating a healthy and balanced diet. They may also give you tips on how to meditate or practice deep breathing to help calm your body.
Managing Symptoms: Staying Healthy
Once you’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, you need to do your part to keep yourself healthy. There are plenty of ways you can do that by:
- Keeping a journal of your thoughts. This can help you identify triggers and act as an outlet for times you’re feeling stressed.
- Stepping away when something is stressing you out. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it may be best to step back and take yourself out of that situation.
- Getting plenty of sleep. Try to get seven to eight hours of quality sleep each night. That means putting away electronics an hour before bed, sleeping in a dark room, and going to bed and waking up at the same time every day.
- Keeping with your treatment plan. It’s important to stick with what your medical provider has recommended. Keep taking your medication, as it may take a few weeks to start working. Continue with your therapy, and be consistent in your efforts.
In many cases, there are no ways to completely prevent anxiety disorders. However, you can take a few steps to lower your chances of developing an anxiety disorder.
- Stay active. Exercising is a powerful way to relieve stress and regulate your mood.
- Don’t drink or use drugs. These substances can interfere with your brain’s activity and sometimes lead to stress that can cause anxiety.
- Eat a healthy diet. Make sure you’re consuming enough whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and healthy protein, like fish, which is important for brain health.
- Reduce your caffeine consumption. Sometimes, too much coffee or tea can make you feel jumpy and increase your anxiety.
Outlook / Prognosis
With proper treatment, your prognosis after being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder is great. Many people find that their quality of life improves after seeking help from their doctor. They may also see improved relationships and greater productivity.
Where/How to get help
If you’ve read this and feel like you may have an anxiety disorder, there are plenty of ways to get help. Your primary care physician can listen to your concerns and help you devise a treatment plan to reduce your stress levels. You can also get help from a psychiatrist, counselor, or psychologist.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers a treatment finder so you can find qualified professionals in your area. For further information, get in touch with one of our medical providers here at Nurx today to learn more about what may work best for you.
This blog provides information about telemedicine, health and related subjects. The blog content and any linked materials herein are not intended to be, and should not be construed as a substitute for, medical or healthcare advice, diagnosis or treatment. Any reader or person with a medical concern should consult with an appropriately-licensed physician or other healthcare provider. This blog is provided purely for informational purposes.