Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety is a feeling of dread, fear or distress over a real or imagined threat to your mental or physical well-being. Symptoms of anxiety are both physical and psychological:

  • Unrealistic or excessive worrying
  • Rapid pulse or rapid breathing rate
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Racing or pounding heart
  • Dizziness, light-headedness or faintness
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea, diarrhea, frequent urination
  • Stomach problems
  • Numbness/tingling of the hands, feet or other body part
  • Muscle tension -- trembling, feeling shaky, jitters, muscle aches and soreness
  • Feeling a "lump in the throat"
  • Feeling keyed up or on edge, fears of losing control, an exaggerated startle response, difficulty concentrating, difficulty falling or staying asleep

A certain amount of anxiety is normal, as anxiety is a natural human feeling. It heightens mental alertness and readies the body for action. We study for tests, prepare for job interviews and rehearse speeches as a result of mild anxiety. Anxiety also serves to protect us from dangerous situations. It can alert you to seek safety when you are in physical danger.

Anxiety also can be a symptom of medical conditions:

  • A heart attack 
  • An overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism)
  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
  • An excess of hormones made by the adrenal glands (Cushing's Syndrome)
  • A side effect of some medications
  • A withdrawal reaction from nicotine, alcohol, drugs or medicines such as sleeping pills

The word anxiety is widely used. In mental health, however, it is important to know the difference between anxiety and fear. In terms of mental illnesses, anxiety refers to an unpleasant and controlling mental tension that has no apparent cause. Fear also causes mental tension, but is due to a specific reason, such as your car skidding out of control on ice.

Anxiety becomes abnormal when it overwhelms and interferes with you day-to-day life.

Anxiety can also be a symptom of a number of illnesses known as anxiety disorders. These include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorders
  • Phobias
  • Panic attacks and panic disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Critical incident stress syndrome

Anxiety disorders are common -- some of the most common conditions people suffer with. Nearly nine percent of Americans are affected during any six-month period. Age of onset is usually in the 20s or 30s, but this can vary. When anxiety is mild or does not interfere with daily living, it can be dealt with using self-help:

  • Look for the cause of the stress that results in anxiety, and deal with it using stress management techniques
  • Lessen your exposure to things that cause you distress
  • Talk about your fears and anxieties with someone you trust: friend, spouse, teacher
  • Eat healthy and at regular times; don't skip meals
  • If you are prone to low blood sugar episodes, eat 5-6 small meals each day, instead of 3 larger ones; avoid sweets on a regular basis, but carry a quick source of sugar with you at all times such as a small can of orange juice; this will give you a quick source of sugar if you do get a low blood sugar reaction
  • Exercise regularly
  • Limit or avoid caffeine intake after noon; caffeine can worsen anxiety and lead to poor sleeping patterns; switch to decaffeinated coffee, teas, colas and other carbonated beverages; limit your intake of chocolate
  • Avoid nicotine and alcohol
  • Avoid medicines that are stimulants (which can cause anxiety-like symptoms), such as over-the-counter diet pills and caffeine pills

Other anxiety disorders often respond to treatment:

  • Treating any medical condition that causes anxiety
  • Education
  • Supportive and behavior therapy
  • Psychological counseling
  • Medication: anti-anxiety medicines such as Xanax, anti-depressants such as Tofranil, Prozac; Tenormin, usually used for high blood pressure, has been shown to help those who have anxiety that comes with "stage fright"
  • Self-help groups such as Agoraphobics in Motion (AIM)

If you or someone you know appears to suffer from anxiety, call for help.