An anxiety disorder can affect almost anyone at nearly any stage of his or her life. These kinds of disorders can leave people with unexplained, irrational and uncontrollable fears of either real or nonexistent events. While there may be obvious signs of an anxiety disorder, they can also be difficult to pinpoint, leaving those suffering from them to often feel helpless or hopeless. The manner in which a person copes with anxiety is typically how the type of disorder is determined, whether it be generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or social anxiety disorder. Despite the type of anxiety, there are several effective treatment options to help patients live fulfilling and successful lives.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
A person suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) has an extreme and unwarranted worry that restricts their ability to participate in necessary and normal activities. A person suffering from GAD can not only obsess and worry about unknown disaster but also everyday issues such as family members, money or work. Outside of this behavior, there are also several physical symptoms that accompany GAD. These can include exhaustion, nausea, uncontrollable twitching or trembling, sweating and insomnia. In order to diagnose this disorder, symptoms of it must be present for at least half a year. It is estimated that at least 5% of the population has some level of GAD, and it is more common in women than in men.
While scientists have a difficult time pinpointing the exact cause of this disorder, it is believed that issues with the brain stem and chemicals in the brain are the leading culprit. This can be exasperated by substance abuse, especially long-term use of benzodiazepines or alcohol. Treatment for GAD usually involves a combination of behavioral therapy and antidepressants. For many suffering from GAD, it has been found that therapy is much more effective than antidepressants alone. If therapy is successful, patients may not need to continue taking medications.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is also an anxiety disorder characterized by extreme fear or worry about unlikely events and daily tasks. However, OCD differs from GAD in that those with this disorder attempt to ease their anxiety by doing repetitive tasks. This can range from anything to hand washing, flipping switches a certain number of times, counting steps or any number of things. Symptoms of OCD can also include aggression, hoarding or be religiously centered. Unlike paranoia, those suffering from OCD typically recognize that their actions make no sense. Despite this, they are incapable of stopping without help.
While OCD is one of the most diagnosed mental health issues in the world, some believe there are many more suffering this disorder than first thought. Outside of visible compulsive acts or obsessions, some who suffer from OCD may complete their actions internally. For example, a person with OCD could use a repetitive phrase, recite poetry or count items all in their head without anyone ever noticing the compulsion. Although doctors have yet to pinpoint the cause of this disorder, brain scans of those with OCD have shown that their brains function differently than those without OCD. While antidepressants can be helpful in treating OCD, the soundest treatment is usually a behavioral therapy known as exposure and ritual prevention (ERP). This type of therapy teaches patients how to reduce their anxiety without addressing their compulsions, and has been proven effective for the majority of OCD patients.
Panic disorder is the sudden onset anxiety coupled with recurring panic attacks. These types of attacks tend to increase the amount of anxiety a patient experiences, as a fear of a panic attack and the consequences of one can tend to preoccupy someone suffering from GAD. This specific worry can actually lead to even more panic attacks, known as anticipatory attacks, resulting in a vicious cycle that is difficult to break from. Unlike GAD, panic disorder is typically a sudden feeling of anxiousness that results in physical symptoms, rather than an ongoing anxiousness.
Panic attacks can last anywhere from one minute to 20 minutes, and in severe cases may require medical intervention in order to end the attack. They can also come in waves over several hours. Symptoms of a panic attack include excessive sweating, rapid heartbeat, trembling, dizziness and hyperventilation. It can also cause chest pain, nausea, difficulty breathing and, in severe cases, alter the patient’s sense of reality. The cause of this disorder is difficult to pinpoint, though researchers have found that it does tend to run in families, and can develop following stressful life events or significant trauma. Treatment for panic disorder is usually a mix of behavioral therapy and antidepressants. So far, the most effective type of therapy for panic disorder has been recreating a panic attack in a controlled environment, aiding patients in learning how to deal with an attack safely and effectively.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the result of psychological trauma. The trauma, whether a short-term or long-term event, overloads a person’s ability to reason and cope. PTSD can cause a patient to block out the trauma, avoid reminders of the trauma to the detriment of their daily life, experience flashbacks or nightmares, and significantly increase their fight-or-flight response; this increase can cause difficulties with sleeping, anger management and cause a state of hyper-vigilance. Physical symptoms of this disorder are usually excessive fatigue, headaches and difficulty performing daily tasks. In order for PTSD to be diagnosed, symptoms must be present for at least a month.
Exact causes of PTSD can vary, though scientists believe that a chemical imbalance in the brain may make one more prone to developing PTSD in response to a traumatic event. While this disorder can result from any number of trauma, warfare and early sexual molestation are the most common culprits. Treatment is usually focused on behavioral therapy in which the patient is taught how to alter their thinking or emotions in response to the trauma. In some cases, medications may be used to help the patient sleep or deal with any depression that may have resulted due to the trauma or subsequent PTSD.
Social Phobia or Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder (SAD) and social phobia (SP) are characterized by extreme fear or anxious feelings when faced by a social situation. This disorder can cause a severe inability to function in one’s daily life, limiting social interactions and greatly reducing one’s ability to hold down a traditional job. This disorder can be either general or specific. Some suffering from SAD may only have issues with large crowds, but be fine and even happy in smaller settings. Some patients, however, have an uncontrollable fear of almost every social situation. This commonly stems from feelings of being judged by others, and can include physical symptoms such as blushing, stammering, heart palpitations, nausea and, in severe cases, panic attacks.
This disorder also gives way to other unique problems. Those suffering from SAD usually are not willing or even able to seek out help, and may turn to substance abuse as a means of self-medication. SAD is one of the few anxiety disorders that usually requires medication for treatment. While therapy is also useful, medications such as antidepressants, beta blockers and benzodiazepines have been found to be most effective. Once the anxious feelings are dealt with through medications, treatment often includes a sort of teaching therapy that aids people with SAD in learning how to function in a social setting.