Our bodies and minds don’t always act the way they should. Sometimes they overreact and cause us distress when nothing in our environment is threatening.
This, essentially, is what is known as “anxiety”. In situations like stressful traffic, a big test, or a self-defense situation, being hyper-sensitive to your surroundings can be helpful—even life-saving. However, for the nearly 30% of adults in the US diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, these feelings are constant to a degree that they can become debilitating.
Many compare feeling anxious to not having an “off-switch”. Someone might know logically that there are no dangers around, but they can’t control their over-the-top reaction.
It’s not easy to live with, but with understanding and proper treatment, a person with anxiety can still live an enjoyable, fulfilling life.
What Causes Anxiety?
The part of the brain that acts as an “on/off-switch” for the body’s responses to external stimuli is called the limbic system. The limbic system controls emotional processing and regulates the reaction centers of the body and brain rather than cognition and learning.
Studies have shown that those with anxiety have a more active limbic system. In this system, the brain passes messages through chemicals called neurotransmitters. These jump from nerve to nerve, telling the brain how to react to certain stimuli.
The three main neurotransmitters that are involved with anxiety are serotonin (affects mood, sleep and appetite), norepinephrine (causes alertness), and GABA (inhibits messages).
Anxiety happens when the brain releases too much serotonin and norepinephrine too frequently, and there is little GABA present to keep it in check.
Anxiety has been linked to medical conditions like heart disease, respiratory illnesses, hyperthyroidism, and many others. Occasionally, doctors will test for these diseases if the anxiety seems to have begun ‘out of nowhere,’ with no other risk factors present.
Another common medical diagnosis linked to anxiety disorders is substance abuse or withdrawal. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that most types of anxiety disorders have a cyclical and significant relationship with alcohol and substance abuse.
Some people who struggle with anxiety choose to self-medicate by using alcohol or other depressants to calm them. Unfortunately, while prescription drugs can be an effective source of help for anxiety, misused prescriptions and/or illicit drugs can be a contributing factor to or even worsen anxiety. This is why it is important to follow all medical guidelines given by a doctor when taking any prescribed medication.
While scientists know what is happening in the brain, they can’t say for certain why a person’s limbic system is overactive. They have, however, identified some risk factors that are frequently associated with anxiety disorders. These include:
Stress due to illness
“Type A” personality
None of these risk factors guarantee that a person will develop anxiety, but they point to the fact that some anxiety might not be caused by a medical condition.
Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders come in many shapes and sizes, but, generally, each disorder shares some symptoms in common, such as:
Being “on-edge” and irritable
Feeling restless and jittery
Headache and muscle tension
Trouble sleeping or sleeping to much
Not all of these symptoms have to be present when diagnosing an anxiety disorder. Your therapist and/or doctor will take some of the risk factors into consideration before making a diagnosis.
Panic Attack vs Anxiety Attack
These two phrases create a lot of confusion. How do these “attacks” differ from each other?
Panic attacks are probably the better known of the two. These can be caused by a trigger or even without explanation. Panic attacks look like:
Racing heart and/or chest pain
Sweating and flushing
Feeling a loss of control
Feeling of doom or dread
On the other hand, anxiety attacks tend to be less severe. They share a lot of symptoms, but instead of being caused by a trigger, anxiety attacks are built up over a period of time. They tend to last a lot longer than a panic attack—even lasting weeks at a time.
Anxiety attacks look very much like very intense anxiety symptoms, including:
Stomachache and nausea
The line between panic attack and anxiety attack is blurry. They are both an “eruption” of anxiety, though panic attacks are usually more aggressive. They can both appear in all types of anxiety disorders.
Anxiety disorders are generally differentiated by how they affect you and what caused them. It is possible for a person to be diagnosed with multiple anxiety disorders at a time.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD is the most common, and the “textbook” image of anxiety. Those diagnosed with GAD experience anxiety symptoms most of the time. They are probably worried, restless, and have trouble sleeping on a regular or even daily basis.
Panic disorder, as the name may suggest, is distinguished by frequent panic attacks. In the case of panic disorder, these panic attacks are often unexpected, and easily triggered. Luckily, they can be managed by reducing overall stress in life.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is an anxiety disorder caused by a traumatic event. This might include situations such as being in war, having a near-death experience, or even the passing of a loved one.
“Triggers” are things that remind them of the past event, like loud noises reminding a soldier of gunfire. Triggers cause flashbacks, where a person with PTSD will feel as though they are reliving the event, leading to intense anxiety, and often activating the body’s “fight-or-flight” response. Someone with PTSD will often avoid situations that remind them of the traumatic event or circumstance.
Complex PTSD is similar to PTSD, though it is caused by long-term and usually repeated trauma, such as abuse or childhood neglect, rather than an event.
Many of the symptoms of C-PTSD are the same as PTSD, though it has a few unique markers rarely seen in PTSD. These include:
Difficulties relating to others and forming relationships
Both PTSD and C-PTSD are forms of anxiety disorder, and those struggling with either condition frequently experience symptoms of anxiety as well.
Most of us have probably felt anxious in a crowd or social setting at one point or another. While most people feel nervous to speak publicly or meet strangers, someone who struggles with a social anxiety disorder has an intense fear of being watched or judged by others.
They might feel this fear in any public setting, or in specific circumstances. Some professionals classify this type as a “phobia”, or fear-based anxiety disorder.
Phobias are crippling fears or overwhelming anxiety about certain things. Some common examples include fears of public speaking, heights, and death. When introduced to these fear-inducing stimuli, the person with that specific phobia could have a panic attack, or experience severe anxiety symptoms.
One phobia frequently mentioned when talking about anxiety disorders is agoraphobia. While technically the fear of open, crowded spaces, it’s more closely felt as a fear of being unable to escape. Individuals with this fear may experience it anywhere from inside a large building without obvious exits, at public parks, or even simply when leaving their house.
Due to life experience, adults are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder. However, children are also susceptible to them.
Children with selective mutism feel unable to speak in certain situations, but not others. It can affect adults as well. It seems related to social anxiety, as they might not speak out of fear of judgment. The NIH says it’s most often developed before the age of five, and results in extreme shyness in children.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Like selective mutism, separation anxiety disorder can also occur in adults, but this type is most often associated with children. Someone might have separation anxiety disorder when they have an overwhelming fear of not only being apart from either parent (or any caregiving individual), but that something terrible may happen to that person.
The Mayo Clinic states that some separation anxiety is normal in childhood development, but shouldn’t go on past age three or so. Separation anxiety disorder may be diagnosed if it goes past this age, or interferes with school or everyday life.
Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety and depression might seem like they are on opposite ends of the mental health spectrum, but they are more closely linked than a lot of people think.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses, up to 60% of people diagnosed with anxiety are also diagnosed with depression.
Both mental health disorders are affected by a disturbance in the amount of mood-controlling neurotransmitters in similar areas of the brain. When they occur together, a phenomenon known as “comorbidity”, these neurotransmitters are released in different proportions.
Anxiety and depression share some symptoms in common, including irritability, irregular sleep patterns, concentration and memory problems.
Some antidepressants treat both depression and anxiety. Serotonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs), for example, are generally effective against both disorders.
Though each type of anxiety disorder should be addressed individually, many of them can be co-treated, at least partially, with various “talk therapies”. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), for example, are two such talk therapies that have been proven to treat anxiety disorders.
Your doctor may recommend medication alongside therapy to treat anxiety. One very common type of anti-anxiety medication are benzodiazepines, or “benzos.” Most people recognize them by the brand names “Valium” and “Xanax.”
Benzos can come in many different doses and release patterns, but they all prompt the brain to release more GABA to inhibit the other neurotransmitters that cause anxiety. However, benzos can be addictive, and are usually only prescribed for short periods of time.
Ready to Feel Better?
It’s never too late to get help. If you feel anxiety is keeping you from living life to its fullest, call us today.
After your initial consultation, we’ll curate a treatment program for you based on your individual mental health needs. Our staff has years of experience in treating different mental health disorders, and we’ll be with you every step of the way.
Schedule your consultation today. Reach out. Show up. Feel Better.