Everybody knows what it feels like to be anxious. There are the concerns about flying after 9/11, the butterflies you get when you have to give a speech, the worries about your mother’s fragile health and the treatment she’s getting. Indeed, to be a human, and especially to live in today’s America, is to be subject to anxiety continually.
Anxiety is a normal human reaction to stress, a threat, or an emergency. It is one of the main reasons that humans have survived this long. Anxiety causes the adrenal gland to pump the hormone adrenaline to the body as a part of the “fight or flight” response. Adrenaline boosts the supply of oxygen and glucose to the brain and muscles, and suppresses other non-emergency bodily processes, such as digestion. The heart rate increases and the pupils of the eyes dilate. At the same time the level of norepinephrine in the brain is increased, readying it for action.
The “fight or flight” response not only helps you in a bar room brawl, but helps you study harder for a test, run faster in a race, and in general helps you perform better in the face of stress. Psychiatrist Albert Ellis calls this the good kind of anxiety. (1) So if this good, then what is the bad kind of anxiety?
There seems to be a continuum from the mildest ‘normal’ anxiety through the most severe cases of Anxiety Disorder. Along this continuum is a ‘tipping point’ which varies for each person, where the good anxiety turns into the bad Anxiety. The adrenal gland forgets to shut down when the threat is gone, or is hyperactive. Worries that once faded are continuous. Fears that once were dissipated by reason are continual and defy reason.
The person with an Anxiety Disorder is locked in a prison, seemingly without any control of their own actions or environment. Untreated Anxiety Disorders cause people to avoid situations that trigger or worsen their symptoms. They are much more likely to suffer from depression. Many turn to alcohol or drugs to gain some sort of temporary relief. It is common for people with Anxiety Disorders to suffer family problems, poor job or school performance, and a crippling lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. Anxiety Disorder disrupts your life in many ways, all negative.
It is estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of the American people age 18 and older suffer from some sort of Anxiety Disorder. That’s 30 to 60 million people! (2) According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA), the US economy loses over 42 billion dollars yearly due to undiagnosed, misdiagnosed and under-treated Anxiety Disorders. Less than one-third of those affected with Anxiety Disorder are treated, the ADAA found in a 1999 study.
Although the symptoms of the various types of Anxiety Disorder vary, generally they may include (3):
- Uncontrollable or obsessive thoughts
- Overwhelming feelings of panic and fear
- Painful, intrusive memories
- Recurring nightmares
- Stomach disturbances such as feeling sick or “butterflies”
- Heart pounding and disturbed breathing
- Muscle tension
- Startling easily or overreacting to mundane situations
There are many different types of Anxiety Disorder that are grouped under a few headings. It is very common for a person to have more than one type. Each person’s Anxiety Disorder is subtly different from every other person’s.
The generally held types of Anxiety Disorder are (each of which will be discussed in its own article; see the links at the end of this article):
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
- Social Anxiety Phobia (SAD, also known as Social Phobia)
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Panic Disorder
- Specific phobias such as fear of spiders or heights
Among of the most tragic side-effects of Anxiety Disorder are guilt, shame, and the loss of self-esteem and confidence. Many people still believe that Anxiety Disorders are character flaws, something that happens because the sufferer is weak or unwilling to gather the will to overcome the illness. It is bad enough when the people surrounding a sufferer believe this, but many victims of Anxiety Disorder believe it themselves, and continually beat themselves up about it, just making matters worse.
But there are three factors that contribute to the development of Anxiety Disorder according to Edmund Bourne, only one of which, stress, is even vaguely under your control:
…your heredity; your personality, which is influenced strongly by your upbringing and childhood experiences; and cumulative stress, the amount of stress you experience in your adult life. Your genes and your personality can predispose you toward [an Anxiety Disorder], but actually developing that disorder is usually triggered either by one major stressor … or a series of life stresses over a period of time. (4)
Science has been slow in identifying physical causes for Anxiety Disorder, or at least much slower than they have with other mental illnesses, such as depression. However, recent research has shown that there are very real physical anomalies in the brains of people with Anxiety Disorder. While an “Anxiety Gene” has not been found yet, it is just a matter of time before the genetic markers for the illness are discovered.
While you may have no control over whether you are afflicted with Anxiety Disorder, you very definitely have control over how you deal with it. There are effective talk therapies and medications out there that can alleviate most if not all of Anxiety’s symptoms. There are new discoveries with non-traditional treatments such as meditation, herbs and diet. More effective means of treating the illness are being discovered at an increasing rate. The future has never looked brighter for Anxiety sufferers.
The following articles go into each of the different types of Anxiety Disorder in depth. Just click on the link to start reading!
- GAD – General Anxiety Disorder
- OCD – Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
- Panic Disorder
- PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
- SAD – Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia)
- Specific Phobias
(1) Ellis, Albert. How to Control Anxiety Before It Controls You. New York: Citadel Press. 2000. Pages 13-20
(2) The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) takes the middle ground, estimating 40 million.
National Institute of Mental Health. (2006). Anxiety Disorders Introduction. Retrieved June 23, 2008, from National Institute of Mental Health. Web site: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/anxiety-disorders/introduction.shtml
(3) American Psychiatric Association. (2007). Anxiety — Let’s Talk Facts. Retrieved June 22, 2008, from American Psychiatric Association Web site: http://www.healthyminds.org/multimedia/anxietydisorders.pdf
(4) Bourne, Edmund J. Beyond Anxiety & Phobia: A Step-By-Step Guide to Lifetime Recovery. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications. 2001. Page 69