What You Should Know About Anxiety Disorders
Kelly Izdihar Crosby
Life can be stressful, and we all experience feelings of anxiety. There are few emotions that can feel as frightening or debilitating. A tight feeling in the chest, a rapid heartbeat, or dizziness can create a sense of impending danger. While anxiety and stress are a normal part of life, they can devolve into a disorder when they impair our ability to deal with everyday challenges. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States aged 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year.”
Anxiety disorders are quite varied, but they can be categorized into six major types:
The ADAA defines generalized anxiety disorder as being “characterized by persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things.” This overburdening sense of worry creates the feeling that something horrible will occur when there is no obvious reason for concern. To be diagnosed with GAD, a person must find it very difficult to control their sense of worry for more days than not and experience these feelings for at least six months. With GAD, a person becomes overly, almost obsessively, concerned with issues like money, family, and/or work. According to the ADAA, “Women are twice as likely to be affected. […] Although the exact cause of GAD is unknown, there is evidence that biological factors, family background, and life experiences, particularly stressful ones, play a role.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition that develops when someone experiences or witnesses an extremely traumatic event. These events are usually related to war, serious accidents, terrorism, or violent assault. In the past, PTSD was referred to with names such as shell shock, battle fatigue, or soldier’s heart. After experiencing the rigors of war, many soldiers suffered from severe anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, and uncontrollable thoughts. In 1980, the inclusion of PTSD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders brought more public awareness to the issue. PTSD was no longer considered just a diagnosis for war survivors. According to the National Center for PTSD, “About seven or eight out of every 100 people (or 7-8% of the population) will have PTSD at some point in their lives. […] About ten of every 100 women (or 10%) develop PTSD sometime in their lives compared with about four of every 100 men (or 4%).” Those who have experienced child abuse, sexual assault, or the sudden loss of a loved one can have PTSD as well as veterans.
Social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, is an intense fear of being watched or judged by others. We all have moments when we feel awkward when meeting new people or on a job interview. However, social anxiety disorder goes beyond mere shyness. The sufferer is crippled by an intense fear of public judgment and humiliation. It makes a person unable to do everyday things in front of people. The onset of social anxiety disorder occurs in our teenage years, a time when many of us are self-conscious and hyperaware of social group dynamics.
Panic disorder, or a panic attack, is a sudden episode of intense fear that causes severe reactions without a threat of real danger. They often come without warning and can be very terrifying. It can feel as if you are spiraling out of control, having a heart attack, or dying. Panic attacks are not life-threatening, but they severely impact your quality of life. The cause of panic attacks is unknown, but risk factors include psychological stress, smoking, and a history of child abuse. Like GAD, women are twice as likely as men to develop panic disorder. This mental illness typically first appears in young adults.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) as “a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.” In popular slang, it is trendy to say that someone is “so OCD!” when they are exceptionally clean and organized. But for those with OCD, the problem goes beyond being a “neat freak” or perfectionist. Luna Greenstein of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says, “What started off as a small trend has turned into a part of everyday language…If someone were to start using a physical illness such as cancer in the same context, most likely, no one would view it as cute.” The symptoms and actions associated with OCD negatively affect a person’s life and can interfere with school, work, or personal relationships. Feelings of alienation and low self-esteem, plus societal misunderstanding of OCD, compound the problem and make seeking treatment difficult.
The last category of anxiety disorders is specific phobias. Specific phobias are an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of objects or situations that pose little danger but trigger feelings of anxiety and avoidance. There seems to be an almost endless list of phobias, but most specific phobias fall into one of four major categories: fear of the natural environment, fear of certain animals, fear related to medical treatments, and fear of specific situations. Some examples are arachnophobia, the fear of spiders; acrophobia, the fear of heights; hemophobia, the fear of blood; and hypochondria, the fear of illness.
Most anxiety disorders are treated with an effective combination of psychotherapy and medication. A highly effective therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a type of talk therapy, and it involves working with a mental health professional in several sessions. CBT can help patients discover and challenge negative thinking patterns. A person with an anxiety disorder may also want to see a psychiatrist. After reviewing your symptoms, a psychiatrist may prescribe medication to help you cope. Anti-depressants are great for treating anxiety and depression, as the two are often linked. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are the most prescribed.
If you feel overwhelmed by stress and anxiety, do not wait to address the issue. Here is a short list of resources to help:
Finally, know that although anxiety is a tough foe, it is not unbeatable. The Quran 2:286 promises us that “Allah does not require of any soul more than what it can afford…” Anxiety disorders are challenging, but they can be conquered through faith, prayer, patience, and therapy. Our trials are not in vain, and God rewards us for every challenge we face.
|Generalized Anxiety Disorder||
|Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder||
|Social Anxiety Disorder||
Kelly Izdihar Crosby is a freelance writer and artist based in Atlanta, GA.