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Anxiety and Stress Disorders

Overview

Everyone feels stressed and anxious now and then. An upcoming examination, new responsibilities at work or a sudden crisis in the family can give almost anyone a sleepless night, fearful thoughts and sweaty palms. Sometimes, however, the fear and anxiety are more than just a temporary discomfort. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), over 18% of the adult population in the United State suffers from an anxiety disorder in a given year. There are several kinds of anxiety disorders, where all of the symptoms cluster around excessive amounts of fear. A cardinal sign of a significant anxiety disorder is that the symptoms, physical, emotional or both, interfere with a person's ability to live the kind of life they would like. The symptoms must last for at least 6 months, too.

Some of the common types of anxiety disorders are:

Types of Anxiety Disorders1

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is when a person has extreme fears and doubts about common problems for at least six months. Even if a person realizes that these fears are extreme, they cannot control their feelings. Some physical symptoms of GAD are:

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder affects approximately 2.2 million adults, according to the NIMH. Those with OCD have obsessions (repeated, upsetting thoughts) and use compulsions (repeated actions) to control the anxiety caused by their obsessions. As the condition worsens, OCD can lead to compulsions that take over a person's life.

Panic disorders are the most easily treatable of anxiety conditions. Sometimes those who have panic attacks also have other conditions, such as alcoholism or depression. Those suffering from a panic disorder usually describe feelings such as:

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is usually triggered by a very upsetting event, such as war or other kinds of physical violence. Accidents and natural disasters can also cause PTSD in some people. Symptoms of PTSD are:

Social Phobia/ Social Anxiety Disorder is characterized by a deep fear and nervousness of being seen negatively in social situations. When severe, SAD causes people to avoid most social situations. Physical symptoms of SAD are:

Finally, there are many kinds of specific phobias, such as a fear of animals (zoophobia) or a fear of heights (acrophobia). When a person is in the presence of the source of their phobia, this can lead to anxiety attacks.

Stressful Life Experiences

Every person will experience stressful life situations. Most will be able to make their way through these experiences with the help of family and friends and their own personal coping skills. Others may find the situations feel so overwhelming that they need professional help from a doctor, counselor or therapist.

Common life stressors include both good and bad events. Probably the most traumatic is the death of a spouse, child or parent. Other significant stressors include divorce (or marriage), losing a job (or changing jobs), retiring, graduating, buying a house and having a baby. Even taking a vacation can be a stressful event.

Symptoms of stress include physical discomforts like chest pain, nausea, headaches, sweating and twitching as well as emotional discomforts like anger, frustration, worry, irritability and sadness. People may react with fatigue and tiredness or an inability to settle down and get any rest.

Reducing the effect of stress is quite possible. The strongest way to do this is with close, confiding relationships (family or friends) that are trustworthy. Even one close relationship can ease the burden of significant stressful situations. Other coping skills include regular sleep, good nutrition (including drinking plenty of water) and regular exercise. Learning time management skills and journaling thoughts and emotions can also be helpful.

If the symptoms of a stressful life experience last for more than 6 months, it is important to seek professional help. It may be that a person really has an anxiety disorder, and will need appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

Treatment of Anxiety Disorders2

For most anxiety disorders, medications and/or psychotherapy are prescribed. Some of the disorders require more specific kinds of treatment. For example, panic disorder is usually treated with a combination of antidepressants, anxiolytics and psychotherapy. Also, treatments for other disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder are still being studied (e.g. deep brain stimulation).

Consult Your Doctor

Anxiety and stress disorders are quite common among the United States population, so don't be afraid to talk to someone. If you believe you have an anxiety disorder or are overwhelmed by a life stressor, please speak to a healthcare professional about your symptoms.

1,2Resource: The National Institute of Mental Health's publication on anxiety disorders.

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Last Reviewed: Mar 03, 2009

Nancy   Elder, MD Nancy Elder, MD
Associate Professor
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati