Everyone experiences anxiety now and then. Anxiety might occur at work before a big presentation or meeting with a boss, or before a dreaded social or family event, or even when exploring a new area or trying something new. For most people, anxiety means feelings of worry and nervousness about something that might or will happen. Anxiety can also cause physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweaty palms. It could even cause a headache, upset stomach, indigestion, or trouble sleeping the night before a big event. Anxiety is the body’s healthy, normal response to potential threats. It is a response that is meant to help protect people from harm. In most cases, a healthy level of anxiety can actually improve performance on everyday tasks, like speaking in front of others or playing sports. The heightened awareness caused by anxiety can help people to be more careful, cautious, and purposeful in what they do. This is when anxiety is doing what it was meant to do.
These brief periods of anxiety that are related to a specific stressful event, place, or person are normal responses. However, anxiety that lasts a long time or starts to interfere with everyday life can become problematic and might lead to an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are among the most commonly diagnosed mental health disorders in the United States. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), anxiety disorders affect 18.1% of adults in the United States, or about 40 million adults over the age of 18. And these are just the individuals who are diagnosed or who have symptoms of a specific anxiety disorder. There are likely even more who go undiagnosed and untreated.
There are many different types of anxiety disorders that are each associated with a different cluster of signs and symptoms. Generalized Anxiety Disorder or GAD is the most common, but others include panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, phobic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It is common for anxiety to co-occur with other mental health disorders, like depression, or even physical illness, which can exacerbate symptoms and make treatment more difficult. Some individuals with anxiety try to self medicate with alcohol or other drugs. Because physical symptoms, like an upset stomach or a headache, are often associated with anxiety, there is evidence that individuals suffering from anxiety are also at greater risk for developing a number of chronic health conditions.
Most people have heard of the “fight or flight” response, which is similar to what is triggered in the brain during periods of anxiety. When someone is afraid or in a stressful situation, the “fight or flight” response triggers the release of special chemicals and hormones in the brain to help the body fight the perceived threat. These hormones enhance reflexes, increase heart rate, and improve circulation, which can be helpful if the body is under attack; however, this can become problematic if it is happening without reason or not in response to a direct threat.
Like many mental health disorders, the cause of anxiety is thought to be a combination of genes and environment. People who have relatives with anxiety disorders might be more likely to have anxiety. The interaction of these genes with environmental factors, like growing up with a stressful home life or being exposed to trauma, can cause persistent anxious feelings or anxiety that lasts a long time. Any kind of repeated exposure to stress or threatening situations may cause the brain to be constantly alert and searching for possible threats, even if they are not there. So, the brain can become wired for anxiety. To complicate this further, a person can even become anxious about having anxiety!
There are a number of theories as to why excessive anxiety is triggered in the brain. Some believe it is a learned response due to repeated exposure to scary or stressful situations. Others think that a person’s irrational thought patterns cause them to overestimate threat. The anxiety response is meant to be turned on in response to threats and only then. Regardless of the cause of anxiety, it is unhealthy when an anxiety response is constantly triggered. Constant stress and anxiety wears a person down both mentally and physically, and can even exacerbate physical conditions or lead to other health problems.
Some people with anxiety begin experiencing it after a traumatic or stressful event, while others may have chronic anxiety lasting since childhood. Some people might even feel that their anxiety was triggered with no apparent cause. Because each person is different, body chemistry and responses can vary. Anxiety symptoms might range from mild to moderate or severe, and may be expressed in different ways. Different anxiety disorders can also produce slightly different symptoms.
Some common symptoms of common anxiety might include:
* Note that this list is not exhaustive, and other signs and symptoms might occur.
Like depression, many people with anxiety become so accustomed to these feelings that they begin to feel it is normal to feel anxious and they do not realize that it might be a problem. The NIMH reports that only about 30% of individuals suffering with anxiety actually seek help, meaning that most adults living with anxiety have never had treatment or help managing their symptoms.
It might be time to seek help if:
Fortunately, anxiety disorders are very treatable! Many people feel that they should be able to manage their anxiety on their own, that they are alone in their struggles, or that they’ll be perceived as a failure for asking for help. However, the truth is, anxiety disorders are very common and can become debilitating if not properly treated.
People often come to Austin Anxiety and Behavioral Health Services feeling overwhelmed and discouraged after trying other techniques for managing anxiety with little success. Our specialized focus on anxiety allows us to stay up to date on the latest research and implement the most effective evidence based treatment interventions. If you are seeking an active, goal-oriented approach to treatment, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) may be a good fit.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is very effective in the treatment of anxiety. This type of therapy can help people understand the relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors while learning practical coping strategies to manage anxiety and stress responses. There are also medications available to help with persistent anxiety and many people benefit from a combination of medication and therapy to treat anxiety.
People with anxiety disorders can lead happy, productive, worry-free lives with the right course of treatment. If you or someone you care about is experiencing anxiety please contact us at 512-246-7225. Our anxiety specialists will work collaboratively with you to develop an individualized treatment plan to empower you to effectively manage anxiety.