Anxiety Disorders

What are Anxiety Disorders?

Anxiety disorders are a group of mental health conditions characterized by excessive and persistent fear, worry, or anxiety that interferes with daily life. There are several types of anxiety disorders, including:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): Excessive worry and fear about everyday events and activities, often accompanied by physical symptoms such as restlessness, fatigue, and muscle tension.
  • Panic Disorder: Recurrent and unexpected panic attacks, which are sudden periods of intense fear or discomfort that are accompanied by physical symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations.
  • Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD): Fear or anxiety related to social situations, such as public speaking, meeting new people, or attending social gatherings.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): OCD consists of recurring, intrusive, and distressing thoughts, images, or impulses (obsessions) that are often followed by repetitive behaviors or mental acts (compulsions) aimed at reducing anxiety.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): PTSD is a condition that can occur following exposure to a traumatic event, characterized by symptoms such as re-experiencing the trauma through flashbacks or nightmares, avoidance of trauma-related stimuli, negative changes in mood and cognition, and hyperarousal.
 

If left untreated, anxiety disorders can have a significant impact on an individual’s mental health and daily life. Anxiety can interfere with work, school, and social relationships, and can also contribute to other health problems such as sleep disorders and depression. Anxiety disorders can also worsen over time, leading to increased symptom severity and greater difficulty in managing daily life. Therefore, seeking appropriate treatment is important for individuals who experience symptoms of anxiety disorders.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a mental health disorder characterized by excessive and persistent worry or fear about various aspects of life, such as health, finances, work, and relationships. The worry is often out of proportion to the actual situation and can be difficult to control. GAD affects approximately 3.1% of the adult population in the United States.

The signs and symptoms of GAD can vary from person to person, but some common ones include:  

  • Persistent Worry or Fear – Excessive, ongoing worry and tension that seems disproportionate to the situation.
  • Physical Symptoms – Such as heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, dizziness, or a rapid heartbeat.
  • Avoidance Behavior – Avoiding places, events, or situations due to fear or anxiety.
  • Trouble with Concentration – Difficulty focusing or thinking about anything other than the present worry.
  • Sleep Disturbances – Problems with falling or staying asleep, or restless, unsatisfying sleep.
  • Irritability or Restlessness – Feeling on edge or having an unexplained sense of impending danger or panic.

DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ANXIETY DISORDERS AND NORMAL ANXIETY

While everyone experiences anxiety at some point, what sets anxiety disorders apart is their severity and persistence. 

  • Normal anxiety: Is a feeling that comes and goes and doesn’t interfere with everyday life. 
  • Anxiety disorders: In this case the feeling of fear may be with the person all the time. It is intense and sometimes debilitating. This group of mental disorders is distinguished by how the feelings of anxiety, fear, or panic are out of proportion to any actual danger. Often, the person recognizes their fear as excessive or irrational, yet feels unable to control it. The impact on daily functioning differentiates these disorders from normal anxiety. In summary, while these disorders share the general theme of excessive fear and anxiety, they are distinct in their manifestations. 

 

CHALLENGES IN DIAGNOSING ANXIETY DISORDERS

Diagnosing anxiety disorders can be challenging due to several factors:

  • Overlap with Other Conditions: Symptoms of anxiety disorders can overlap with other mental health disorders, like depression or bipolar disorder, making it difficult to pinpoint the exact issue.
  • Subjectivity of Symptoms: As most anxiety symptoms are subjective and internal, they can be difficult to measure and assess objectively.
  • Reluctance to Seek Help: Individuals may be reluctant to seek help or may not recognize that their symptoms are part of a recognized disorder.
  • Variability of Symptoms: Symptoms can vary greatly from person to person, and even within the same person over time.
  • Misdiagnosis and Comorbidities: Misdiagnosis is a significant concern with anxiety disorders. Conditions such as hyperthyroidism can mimic the symptoms of anxiety disorders, leading to incorrect treatment. Additionally, comorbidities are common, where an individual suffers from more than one disorder simultaneously, such as anxiety and depression, which can complicate the diagnosis and treatment process.

TREATMENT METHODS FOR GAD

Effective treatment modalities for GAD include both clinical and medication interventions. Some of the most effective clinical treatments are:

1. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is a short-term, goal-oriented therapy that focuses on changing negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to anxiety. CBT helps individuals learn coping skills, such as relaxation techniques and cognitive restructuring, to manage their anxiety symptoms.

2. Exposure Therapy: This therapy is a subset of CBT and is particularly effective for phobias and panic disorders. It involves the gradual exposure of the patient to the feared object or context without any danger, to help them overcome their anxiety. Systematic desensitization and virtual reality exposure are common methods used in exposure therapy.

3. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR): Combines mindfulness meditation, body awareness, and yoga to help individuals become more aware of their thoughts and feelings and develop greater self-acceptance and self-compassion. Research has shown that MBSR can be as effective as CBT in reducing anxiety symptoms and improving quality of life.

4. Medication: In addition to clinical interventions, medication can also be an effective treatment for GAD. The most commonly prescribed medications for GAD are:

  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs): such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and sertraline (Zoloft). SSRIs are a type of antidepressant that work by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain
  • Benzodiazepines: for short-term relief of anxiety symptoms. Benzodiazepines are a type of sedative that work by enhancing the activity of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). 
  • Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs): Such as venlafaxine (Effexor XR) and duloxetine (Cymbalta).
  • Tricyclic Antidepressants: Like imipramine (Tofranil) and clomipramine (Anafranil).
  • Beta-Blockers: Used to control the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as trembling and sweating.

Benzodiazepines can reduce symptoms of anxiety, but benzodiazepines have a higher risk of dependence and abuse. SSRIs and SNRIs have fewer side effects but may take several weeks to become effective.

Evidence-based research supports the use of both clinical and medication interventions for the treatment of GAD. A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found that CBT was more effective than other psychotherapies and benzodiazepines in reducing symptoms of GAD and improving quality of life. Another meta-analysis found that MBSR was as effective as CBT in reducing anxiety symptoms and improving stress-related outcomes. A systematic review of randomized controlled trials found that SSRIs were more effective than placebo in reducing symptoms of GAD, with no significant differences in efficacy between different types of SSRIs.

Understanding Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are a common symptom experienced by individuals with anxiety disorders. They are characterized by an intense surge of fear or discomfort that typically lasts for several minutes and can lead to a feeling of impending doom or loss of control. Panic attacks can occur in a variety of settings and can be triggered by specific stimuli, such as phobias, or occur unexpectedly without an identifiable trigger.

The physical symptoms of panic attacks can include heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, chest pain, and feelings of choking or suffocation. Individuals may also experience derealization or depersonalization, which involves feeling detached from one’s surroundings or sense of self. These physical symptoms can be overwhelming and may lead individuals to seek medical attention or emergency care.

Despite the distressing nature of panic attacks, they are a common experience, with a lifetime prevalence of up to 28% in the general population (Kessler et al., 2012). It is important to normalize this experience and reduce any stigma associated with panic attacks, as this can discourage individuals from seeking appropriate treatment.

Effective treatment for panic attacks often involves a combination of medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed medications for panic disorder. However, psychotherapy, specifically CBT, is considered the first-line treatment for panic disorder. CBT typically involves exposure therapy, which involves gradually exposing individuals to feared stimuli or situations in a safe and controlled environment, and cognitive restructuring, which helps individuals challenge and change their negative thoughts and beliefs about their anxiety.

Research has shown that CBT is an effective treatment for panic disorder, with one meta-analysis finding that CBT was significantly more effective than control conditions and alternative treatments (Olatunji et al., 2010). In addition, a study comparing the effectiveness of CBT and medication found that while both treatments were effective, CBT had a lower relapse rate and was associated with better long-term outcomes (Barlow et al., 2000).

OVERCOMING STIGMA AND SEEKING HELP

One of the biggest challenges for those with anxiety disorders is overcoming the stigma associated with mental health. Many fear judgement or misunderstanding from others, which can deter them from seeking help.

  • Awareness and Education: Educating oneself and others about anxiety disorders can help in reducing stigma. Understanding that it’s a common and treatable condition can encourage more people to seek help.
  • Support Systems: Having a strong support system in family, friends, or support groups can provide the necessary encouragement to seek treatment.
  • Professional Help: Consulting mental health professionals for diagnosis and treatment is a critical step in managing anxiety disorders.
  • Sharing Experiences: Sharing personal experiences with anxiety can be empowering and help others feel less alone in their struggles.

Living with an anxiety disorder is a complex and challenging experience, but with effective coping mechanisms, support, and professional help, individuals can manage their symptoms and lead fulfilling lives. 

The journey involves continuous learning and adjustment, but it is one that many navigate successfully, demonstrating resilience and strength. 

Overcoming stigma and seeking help are vital in this process, as they open doors to better understanding, effective treatment, and improved quality of life.

Ready to make a change?

Liz Lund, MPA

Liz is originally from lush green Washington State. She is a life enthusiast and a huge fan of people. Liz has always loved learning why people are the way they are. She moved to UT in 2013 and completed her bachelors degree in Psychology in 2016. After college Liz worked at a residential treatment center and found that she was not only passionate about people, but also administration. Liz is recently finished her MPA in April 2022. Liz loves serving people and is excited and looking forward to learning about; and from our clients here at Corner Canyon.
When Liz is not busy working she love being outdoors, eating ice cream, taking naps, and spending time with her precious baby girl and sweet husband.